Easter Sunday (A)
April 7, 1996
Manger, Cross, and Empty Tomb
(Matthew 28:1-10)
A friend of mine was recently talking about life and death. He is in his seventies and has been quite successful in his profession. He has had some heart problems that have caused him to reassess matters of diet and exercise. In a very pensive mood, he shared with us his own musings about his life and the lives of loved ones who have recently died. Then he read this somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement about how life is sort of backwards:
“Life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time, all your weekends, and what do you get in the end of it? … I think that the life cycle is all backward. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live 20 years in an old-age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young. You get a gold watch; you go to work. You work 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement.
“You go to college; you party until you’re ready for high school; you go to grade school; you become a little kid; you play. You have no responsibilities. You become a little baby; you go back into the womb; you spend your last nine months floating; and you finish up as a gleam in somebody’s eye.”
Sooner or later, all of us are forced to think rugged, tough thoughts about life and death. Into those thoughts come some religious questions. They come no matter how irreligious or dismissive we might have been about the very notion of God, much less the possibility of a God who is personally interested in us.
Frankly, I’ve come to a point in my life where I spend a lot of time thinking about life and death. According to the actuarial tables, I still have a couple of decades plus a few years left to live. At the same time, in the last three years, I have lost three of my best golfing buddies to death, each of whom were in their sixties, and have also lost my oldest daughter to death. And I preside at a lot of funerals. So I don’t have the luxury of living in denial of the inevitability of mortality.
Not only am I — by my age, circumstances and vocation — prone to somewhat philosophical reflections about my own life and death and the life and death of those close to me. I am also a person like you — who reads widely, goes to my share of movies, talks to a lot of people and, as a result, observes the gamut of human experience all the way across the spectrum from the joy of giving birth to the grief of death’s farewells. There are times when life seems so long lasting. I have the feeling like I’ve always been here and will always be here. In fact, it is difficult for me to think of anything but a continuing sequence of tomorrows.
Then there comes that 4:31 A.M. shaking of my house, the swaying of the chandelier, and the flicked-on television shows me a TV studio in shambles. What at one moment for us was the cognitive reality that an earthquake of some force had hit Southern California was now an existential trauma when we realized that Anne’s parents were not that far from the epicenter. We rushed to their home, driving over streets with open cracks, past houses with toppled chimneys, seeing stores with shattered windows, a fire hydrant burst, and scores of people wrapped in blankets sitting out in front of their houses.
With this startling moment of truth, I once again began my musings about the fragile, slender thread called life by which we dangle, in a world so capable of snagging and even clipping that delicate cord.
So I come to Easter Sunday, the 54th one of my life. I know that you come here with your musings. After all, you, too, have experienced the death of loved ones. You, too, have been exposed to the floods, fires, droughts, and the earthquakes. You, too, have had your tendencies to go it alone with very little thought of God. And you, too, have come to those moments when abruptly you shifted gears and declared that, at least for a while, God will be important, the family will go to church, and you’ll start doing religious things — even if it all seems a little boring. Then there is always the fear that one of us might just take this religious thing a bit too seriously. The last thing we want on our hands is some religious nut, some fanatic.
The rumbling stops, at least for a while. We go a few weeks without the death of the loved one. And it’s back to business as usual as if somehow we’re always going to be here — until the next earthquake hits, or the airplane lurches violently in the turbulence, or two Japanese youths are gunned down in San Pedro, or a neighbor couple is tied up in their garage and pistol-whipped by burglars or a tornado hits a church and kills a lot of people.
What can I say to you and to myself on this Easter Sunday 1996, that speaks realistically to the human dilemma and enables us to leave this sanctuary with something and Someone more than temporary, equipped to face these life and death issues and all of their complexities?
This morning, in great simplicity, let me simply point you to three symbols that capture the essence of how God relates to you and me in this multicultural blur of human complexity.
Symbol one is a manger.
Your mind fixes on that picture. It is so familiar. We’ve seen it in those nativity scenes that used to be prominently placed on city greens, in shopping malls, and appear on TV specials. We still see them occasionally on Christmas cards. If we happen to go to church on Christmas Eve, that picture creeps into our imagination in the form of a hillside cave in Bethlehem, complete with a manger, a loving mother, a gentle stepfather, some animals, and shepherds.
Thank God for that manger scene, that cradle in Bethlehem. Thank God because that scene brings to mind an answer to that perennial question that leaps up within all of us who are human. The question is: “Is there a God? If there is a God, is that God interested in us human beings or not?” That cradle, that manger of Bethlehem, tells us that God chose to scrape His fingers upon human life.
Let me ask a question. Do you believe that God actually came to earth through the womb of a woman?
A friend of mine is president of a college in Indiana. He tells of attending meetings attended by Theodore Hesburgh at a time when Father Hesburgh was the president of Notre Dame University. On one occasion, the topic veered to reflections about historic Christianity and the academic recruitment of faculty. Father Hesburgh made the statement, “I am looking for a philosopher who believes this stuff!”
The issue is congruence. It is one thing to get nostalgic on Christmas Eve. Every so often I’ve been confronted with worshippers after our fourth service, our equivalent of midnight mass. They’ve had a little too much to drink before coming to church. There at the door, with great emotion, they talk about their childhood commitment to God, their once-active love of Jesus, and their determination now to turn their life around and go a different direction, only to stumble off into the plaza and their further Christmas revelries, not to be seen again for a year, if I’m ever to see them again.
The question is: Do you believe this stuff? Either God is interested in human history or He is not. The Bible says He is. The Bible says the Holy Spirit of God impregnated a first-century, teenage girl from Nazareth in Palestine. She was taken by her fiance, an older man who was a carpenter from Nazareth, to Bethlehem because of the Roman taxation. There, this young woman, Mary, who had never had sex with a man, bore a child, making His cradle out of a manger. There, that squealing little baby was God breaking into human history.
The apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:6-7, refers to Jesus Christ in these words: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Again I ask the question: Do you believe this stuff? Don’t play games with it. This is what Christianity is all about. The manger.
Symbol two is a cross.
Thirty-three years have gone by. That little baby has grown up to full stature. He had all of the normal experiences of a Jewish child in Roman-occupied, first-century Palestine. At approximately age 30, He left the carpenter shop of His father and began a public ministry marked by radical teaching. By radical I mean that He took the Old Testament Scriptures that had been squeezed into tightly constricted religious traditions and breathed new life into them. He shook up the religious establishment. He talked harshly with those who profiteered from the religious enterprise. And He treated with gentleness and kindness those hated tax collectors, prostitutes, alcoholics, the poverty stricken, diseased, politically and socially oppressed persons of His day.
God sees what has gone wrong in this world. God is very aware of sin. God is very aware of guilt. God is very aware of responsibility. God is very aware of your and my need for forgiveness.
Jesus came not just to live a good life. He came primarily to die. The cross is the centerpiece of the Christian message. There is no grace, there is no forgiveness, there is no new beginning without the cross.
Perhaps you’ve seen the cartoon. It’s one of two men standing under the cross. They are looking upward, and the one says to the other, “If I’m okay and you’re okay, what is He doing up there?”
Yet human history is an effort to find a way around the cross. We don’t like the cross. We don’t like to think of ourselves as anyone who needs a Savior nailed to a cross. “I’m not wrong. I’m just human. Society made me like this. God made me like this.” So some of us work real hard to rewrite the Bible. We take scissors and try to clip out of it those besetting sins which are ours. “I’ll save myself, thank you very much!”
We are, however, forced to face the biblical statement the apostle Paul adds in Philippians 2:8: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that we have a “high priest” who is touched with the feelings of your and my infirmities. We are told that Jesus was tempted just as you and I are tempted — yet without sin. We are told that the perfect Lamb of God was shed for the forgiveness of sins, your sins and mine. We are told that He himself bore my sins and your sins in His body on the cross, that you and I might die to sin and live to righteousness.
The Bible says there is nothing you and I can do to save ourselves. As the old hymn goes: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe; sin had left its crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.”
Do you really believe this stuff?
Symbol three is an empty tomb.
There is something beyond the manger. There is something beyond the cross. There is something that brings all the ambiguities and all of the questions to some eternal resolution.
The lights went out that Friday for those followers of Jesus. They who had so much hope in giving themselves to Him couldn’t quite handle that shattering crucifixion scene. He had told them it would happen. They had intellectually, reluctantly accepted it. But then it actually happened. They slid into the shadows and became lost in the crowd.
The Scriptures tell us that on the first day of the week two women by the name of Mary (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) went to look at the tomb. When they got there, there was a violent earthquake. An angel of the Lord had come down and rolled back the stone and sat on it. The guards shook with fear and froze into a catatonic state.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you” (Matt. 28:5-7).
The women hurried away from the tomb, afraid, yet filled with joy, running to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Hi!” He said. You say, “Oh come on, John, don’t trivialize the message.” Matthew says He said, “‘Greetings.'” My friend, Dale Brunner, that astute student of the Greek, says that Jesus’ first greeting to those women was that of “Hi!” or “Hello, good friend.” The women fell, grabbed His feet, and worshipped Him. Then He tells them to go to tell the other disciples to go to Galilee where He will appear to them.
Paul, in Philippians 2:9-11, makes this emphatic statement:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Three symbols: a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb.
The manger shows a God who is willing to take human form. The cross shows a God who is willing to die for our sins in our place, to offer forgiveness. The empty tomb shows a God who has removed the sting from death, rising victorious over sin and death, offering to you and me eternal life in the now in which we are empowered by His Holy Spirit and eternal life beyond this life in heaven in the presence of Jesus Christ forevermore.
What I am trying to say, as bluntly and as lovingly as I possibly can, is that there is a God. This God created you with meaning and purpose for life. Yet this God sees that something has gone wrong in your life and mine. This God is so concerned about that and sees the helplessness of you and me as we struggle along, trying to make sense out of the puzzle of life, that He took human form and even went to the cross to pay the penalty of my sin, of your sin. He rose from the dead in victory, offering to you and me a fresh start. That’s the good news!
You say, “What do I do with this good news?” I invite you, now, to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. His is a free gift. All you have to do is to open your heart, your life, who you are, to Jesus Christ. Pray a prayer something like this: “Dear God, I need you. I have tried to make sense of my own life and haven’t been too successful. I have done some things I know I shouldn’t have done. I have left some things undone I know I should have done. I am sorry for my sins. I ask your forgiveness. I put my trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. I receive your gift of forgiveness.”
You say, “That’s too simple.” God made it straightforward and simple enough that a child could receive Him. You don’t need a Ph.D. to become one of His. But you do need, in a very profound way, to open your life to Him. Jesus said that He stands at the door of your life, knocking. He wants access. He wants in. Will you unlock the door, throw it open, welcome Him in to be part of all of your life?
I urge you to do it and do it now. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the moment of truth. For you, it may be coming to Jesus Christ for the first time. For some of us, it may be returning to Him after we’ve done our own thing, independent of Him for some time. For others of us, it may just be a moment in which we thank God for His love and grace.
If this day you have opened your life to Jesus Christ for the first time, He wants you to confess Him before others. In the very articulation of this decision, you put yourself on the line as one of His. This is the beginning of new life for you and new life for us as you grow along with us in Him. (John A. Huffman)
2nd Sunday of Easter (A)
April 14, 1996
Doubting Thomas?
(John 20:19-31)
After Jesus was crucified, the Disciples were heartbroken. They had expected their beloved leader was the Messiah who was going to regain the throne of David and free captive Israel. Only days before they had asked Him about their positions in the new kingdom, expecting they would be the equivalent of His cabinet. Then He was captured and executed. They were now in fear of their lives. Their whole world had caved in on them. They were in tremendous grief.
In the midst of their pain, Jesus appeared, victorious over death! How many of you have stood by an open casket wishing your loved one would sit up and speak? For these ten men, it happened! But only for ten; where was Thomas?
When the ten told Thomas, he said: “Unless I see for myself, I will not believe. His response has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” But was his doubt wrong?
Thomas’ real mistake
After Jesus died and their grief began, the ten went into hiding together God had brought them together as a community of faith, and as such, they shared their grief and ministered to each other. All except for Thomas, who for reasons not given to us, withdrew and tried to handle his pain by himself. Was he embarrassed for the others to see him crying? Did he doubt they could help each other? Whatever the reason, he was off somewhere like “the Lone Ranger,” suffering alone.
Then Jesus appeared to the community of faith. Those who were together saw Him and their grief was turned to joy. Thomas, on the other hand, was still working out his grief by himself. That was his mistake.
Thomas’ real faith
Thomas’ commitment to Jesus during His ministry was probably as great as anyone else’s. Earlier, John has given us the story of Jesus withdrawing to a place of seclusion beyond the Jordan River. While there He received the word Lazarus was dying. Eventually Jesus called the Disciples together and said He was returning to Bethany. He was reminded His life was in danger and it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).
Earlier, he was willing to die with Jesus; on Easter, he would not believe Jesus was alive until he saw Him. Did something happen to “weaken” Thomas’ faith? No.
Jesus appeared to the ten. They had a personal experience with the risen Lord. They testified to Thomas, but he insisted upon more than their testimony. Thomas needed his own personal experience with the risen Jesus.
The worst thing Thomas could have done was to accept the testimony of the ten. Then all he would have had was what we call a “head knowledge” (assensus) of Jesus. Thomas needed more; he needed what we call a “heart knowledge” (fiducia) based on a personal encounter with Jesus.
When Jesus appeared and spoke to him, Thomas believed. His response is one of the greatest affirmations of faith in the divinity of Jesus we have: “My Lord and my God!”
Firsthand faith
Once I was called by a teenage girl who needed help leading her date to Jesus. She had shared the Gospel with him, but did not know how to lead him in a “Sinners’ Prayer.” I immediately went to them. As she said, he understood the details of the story. He was ready to be baptized, if that was what she wanted. He would even admit he had sinned, but “So what?” There was no sorrow for his sin. I asked, “Do you in anyway feel God speaking to you now, or Jesus, in your heart, saying these things are true?” “No,” he said, but he was nonetheless willing to proceed. Had I baptized that young boy, he would have left with only a head knowledge and would have remained lost. Instead, I said, “Call me when Jesus calls you.”
No one can be saved because their parents believed. No one can be saved because their spouse, or their friends believe. Like Thomas, we must all have our own firsthand, personal, and spiritual experience with Jesus Christ where He meets us, knocks on the door of our heart and we let Him in.
It is important to hear the testimonies of others and to know the Bible stories about Jesus, and believe them. But until we encounter Him and ask Him into our hearts, we are not truly Christian. Have you had a personal experience with Jesus, or is your faith built upon the experiences of others? (Bill Groover)
3rd Sunday of Easter (A)
April 21, 1996
Anatomy of a Revival
(Acts 2:14a, 36-41)
Some years ago there was a movie entitled “Anatomy of a Murder.” The second chapter of Acts could easily be renamed “Anatomy of a Revival,” because it walks us through the very process of what took place in bringing the church’s first revival — a great, God-given outpouring of the Holy Spirit that transforms lives.
What happened that resulted in a dramatic revival that day in Jerusalem?
1. People Saw the Result of God’s Presence in the Lives of Believers
On that amazing day of Pentecost, the first band of Christian believers had been gathered together when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them in a miraculous way. Under the influence of the Spirit, they began to declare the greatness of God in a multitude of languages they did not even know, so that the many people who had traveled to Jerusalem from other nations were now all hearing the gospel proclaimed in their own language.
The miracle that day provided evidence that something unique had happened, but the miracle itself was not enough. What was just as important is what they did with the miracle: we learn in v. 11 that they were proclaiming “the wonders of God.” The miracle combined with the message to make it clear that God was doing something special in the lives of those believers.
Perhaps revival comes so infrequently in our day because we offer so little evidence of the presence of God in our own lives as believers. Do we display a transformed life to those with whom we live and work? Do they hear about the “wonders of God” as we go about our daily conversation? Is there anything about your life and mine that is distinctive, that bears the clear imprint of the presence of Christ?
2. People Heard the Gospel Message
As he spoke to the crowd that day, which had already been prepared by the witness of the believers, Peter boldly proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There was a day in which few Americans could honestly say they had never heard the gospel; we were what one observer has called a “pre-evangelized culture.” But that day has passed; today we live in what is essentially a pagan culture — much like the culture in which those first Christian believers lived and worked!
That means we have a greater burden than ever to boldly proclaim the gospel message in ways people can hear and understand. That involves what happens both inside the walls of the church and outside. Even as those first believers did, we must move out into the culture and claim it for Christ — not only in the temple but also in the marketplace and in the forum. Wherever people are, we must be there to share the gospel clearly and effectively.
How can God use you to carry the gospel into our culture? What are your circles of influence? There is some place where you can make a difference, whether it is in the office or school, the shop or the home, through your vocation or through your relationships. Will you make a commitment today to allow God to use you to carry the gospel into the world that is beyond these church walls?
3. People Were Called to Decision
What did Peter do after proclaiming Christ? He did not form a discussion group. He did not encourage his listeners to carefully consider his proposals. He did not suggest further reading and send them home. What Peter did was to boldly challenge them to decide, to change, to act on the truth of the gospel.
It is not enough to know about Christ; we must know Him as a reality in our own lives. It is not enough to open our church doors and offer worship and study; we must also call on men and women to decide, to make their own commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.
Peter called on the people to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (v. 38)
What about you? Have you experienced that in your own life? Have you invited Jesus Christ to come into your life and be your Lord and Savior? Perhaps today revival can begin in your heart and your life. You have seen God at work in the lives of other believers; you have heard the gospel — that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins, and offers you forgiveness of sins and abundant life if you will trust Him as Lord. Now you face a decision: what will you do with Jesus? (Michael Duduit)
4th Sunday of Easter (A)
April 28, 1996
The Birth of the Church
(Acts 2:42-47)
Early one morning an electrical fire began in a church building with the result that the building went up in flames. The pastor, many of the members, and some neighbors stood watching as the fire fighters sought to minimize the damage. The pastor saw a man he knew and he said to him, “Well, John, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you at church,” to which the man responded, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this church on fire.”
There is no question that the early church was on fire. The Holy Spirit filled every believer, and that filling was accompanied by attesting miracles. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 people began their new lives in Christ (v. 41). It was at that time that God, as the Attending Physician, caused 3,000 people to be born again and to constitute the infant church.
The text describes what happened in the days immediately after the events of the day of Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit not only resulted in the lives of 3,000 people being revolutionized; it also resulted in the vibrant, obedient fellowship that we know as the New Testament church. I have always believed that Acts 2:42-47 is a beautiful model of what a church ought to be and do.
At this point the church was so young that I believe that it is still appropriate to refer to the birth of the church. But now we are no longer in the delivery room; we are in the nursery. The people we read about in Acts 2 were really only infants in Christ, and they were beginning to grow in the faith and in their commitments to God and to one another. Those of you who have been around babies know that infants grow up very quickly. In fact, by a baby’s second birthday he or she is one half of their final height. It is a time of rapid growth. These early days of the church were also days of rapid growth. It was as if they were living in a hothouse environment; conditions were just right for them to thrive and grow.
Naturally, we want Christians at this church to thrive and grow, and the faster the better. If we want that to happen, then we will also be interested in creating an atmosphere, or environment, that is conducive for the birth of new Christians and the growth of those who have already been born again. Using these verses as our guide, let’s describe some characteristics of this nursery, or hothouse environment.
For the first characteristic, look in verse 41: “Those who received his word were baptized.” After listening to Peter talk about Christ many were convicted of their need for Christ. In fact, the Bible says that they were “pierced to the heart” (2:37). So some of the people in the crowd asked, “What shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter told them, “Be baptized in the name of Jesus” (v. 38). In other words, they were to publicly associate themselves with Jesus Christ as Lord through this obedient act of baptism. They were not just to go back to their homes thinking about how special it felt to hear about Jesus and His love. They were to make a decision that would publicly and evidently alter their commitments and the course of their lives.
So the first characteristic of a church where believers in Jesus are growing is a public profession of faith and baptism.
Verse 41 indicates that 3,000 were baptized; they had new lives overflowing with joy, forgiveness, direction, and a reason for living (the reason for living). And when that kind of radical transformation comes about it will, it must, be expressed in faith and obedience with the result that others see the change that God has brought about. Jesus said, and Peter repeated on the day of Pentecost, that the first step in living that changed and obedient lifestyle is the step of baptism.
In the New Testament there is no such thing as a secret or private follower of Jesus. When someone is a disciple of Jesus that discipleship is so important that it will be expressed.
Another characteristic of a New Testament church is continual devotion to teaching of the word of God.
Verse 42 states, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Who were “they”? They were the three thousand who had just come to know Christ. What were “they” doing? They were “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” What were the apostles teaching? Every time the book of Acts communicates the content of the apostles’ teaching it demonstrates that they taught about Jesus, usually using the Old Testament as the text to point to Jesus. In other words, they were regularly involved in the study of God’s word.
People who know and love Jesus Christ do not begrudge time spent in the study of the word of God. In fact, they look forward to Sunday School and other Bible study opportunities. It’s interesting to read the book of Acts and note every time that teaching is mentioned. I find that it is referred to no less than thirteen times. Obviously teaching was a key factor in the early church; these Christians were people who studied God’s word together.
Teaching is no less important today than it was in the early church. It is not at all inaccurate to say that ours is a generation of biblical illiteracy. In a recent survey by the Barna Research Group, some interesting facts were discovered about the knowledge of the Bible on the part of non-Christians and Christians. For example, only 61% of Christians know that Jonah is a book of the Bible. 30% did not even give the correct answer to the question about where Jesus was born. 24% of the Christians in the survey either thought that the book of Isaiah was in the New Testament or did not even hazard a guess as to where it could be found.
Such statistics should come as no surprise to us. After all, how is it possible for people to know the contents of a book that they do not read? 93% of Americans own at least one Bible, but 70% of non-Christians do not read the Bible, and 23% of Christians said that they do not read the Bible at all. That’s quite a contrast with the early church, where “they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”
Yet at the same time, in every part of our culture and in every neighborhood there is a hunger for truth, for something to hold on to, for a spiritual anchor. People are looking for spiritual direction and a reason for living that matters for eternity. That hunger, I think, was reflected in President Clinton’s press conference on MTV Amidst other questions about his underwear and his favorite rock song, another kind of question was asked. Seventeen-year-old Dahlia Schweitzer asked, “Mr. President, it seems to me that [singer] Kurt Cobain’s recent suicide exemplified the emptiness that many in our generation feel. How do you propose to teach our youth how important life is?” People like Dahlia Schweitzer are seeing more clearly than ever the moral and spiritual vacuum that surrounds them, they are realizing that it takes more than popularity and wealth to fill it, and they are looking for someone to teach them some answers.
And we don’t have to bang them over the head with the Bible to show them that the answer is Christ; we can simply present the facts. Statistics show that Christian marriages are stronger and have more enjoyable sex lives, that children raised in the church are more likely to resist drugs and pre-marital sex, and that crime decreases as church involvement increases.
If we want to reach the people who are looking for truth, we need not bother with any message except that which only the church can give — the truth that God has revealed in His word, based on the One who is the Truth. In a survey done by Princeton Religion Research Center a few years ago, no less than 60% of Americans believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems.
In Christ and His word we have the hope and the truth that they are looking for, and they know that we have it. Let’s be a church that majors on reaching people. Let’s make everything that happens here conducive to reaching people who are unreached but who need what only Christ and His word can give.
A New Testament church is where people are coming to know Jesus Christ, are publicly professing Him, and are being baptized. Second, it is where people are devoted to the teaching of the word of God.
Third, where there is a church in which people are growing in the faith, there is continual devotion to fellowship with the people of God.
Verse 42 indicates that not only were they devoting themselves to teaching, but also “fellowship.” Of course, fellowship means to have something in common; it means sharing. What did they share? They had in common what Christ had done in their lives. But they also shared “the breaking of bread” (v. 42). Verse 46 also mentions that they were “breaking bread from house to house.” I read this passage of Scripture many times before I noticed that, because I had not been looking for it. My idea of what a group of committed Christians does is fasting, not eating. But the early church, filled with all these growing Christians, spent a lot of time together in fellowship — just eating and talking.
The Bible calls the church the “body of Christ.” When a person receives Jesus as Savior that person is baptized into the body of Christ. Christians are, by their nature, part of one another, just as a body has various parts but is one body. We are one body of Christ. That means we need one another to be complete. If you were to cut your hand off it would not thrive without the body. It is the same way in the church; God has made us in such a way that we are not complete without one another. So if we come to church hiding behind a phony, religious facade, pretending that we do not need to grow in our love for Christ or our service for Him, then we can hardly expect to be complete in Christ.
When real fellowship occurs we share our joys, burdens, dreams, commitments, and hurts with one another in the context of learning and sharing the word of God, and we find help, support, healing, and direction from one another. That is fellowship.
A fourth characteristic of this spiritual nursery that we call the early church: there was continual devotion to communication with God.
Verse 42 adds that they were “continually devoting themselves … to prayer.” In fact, throughout the book of Acts we will see the early church was a praying church. Before the coming of the Holy Spirit they had prayed for ten days. In chapter 3 we will see that Peter and John were not too busy to go to the temple at the hour of prayer. In chapter 4 we will read that the church joined in prayer again.
I long for us to be more of a praying church. When a church or an individual does not live by prayer it is an indication that they are trusting in what they can do and not depending on what God alone can do.
Public profession of faith and baptism, continual devotion to the teaching of the word of God, continual devotion to fellowship, and to prayer. Fifth, also note that there was a spirit of giving.
Verse 44 states that they “had all things in common,” and verse 45 reads, “They began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” Apparently possessions were no longer as important as people, so they gave away their possessions to meet the needs of people. When someone receives Jesus Christ and publicly commits to Him and when that person is devoted to the teaching of the word of God, to fellowship, and to prayer, this spirit of giving is as natural as water flowing downhill. It’s unnatural for a Christian not to give. In fact, the spirit of selfishness, greed, or covetousness may just be the greatest hindrance to experiencing the kind of rapid spiritual and numerical growth that characterized the early church.
Someone once said to me that the reason he didn’t go to church is because they talk about money too much (he said “they” but I think he meant me). I reminded him that Jesus talked about money a lot more often than most churches do. “Yeah,” he said, “But the way they do it has nothing to do with spiritual things.” I let him know that I was confused by that, because I have been in churches every time the doors were open since I became a Christian 23 years ago and I’ve never heard money mentioned in Sunday School or worship in anything other than a context that related it to spiritual things. My suspicion is that for folks like this gentleman money is so important to them that they have allowed their pocketbooks to come between them and God.
In the life of a Christian and in a New Testament church there is a spirit of giving. Thank God for that spirit which is evident in this church. I hope that you are part of it.
Herman and Henrietta were touring their beautiful new house, which Henrietta had paid for with her own money, a fact of which she often reminded Herman. As they walked from room to room, in each one she commented that if it were not for her money they would not have that room. Herman didn’t say a word. When their furniture arrived, also paid for by Henrietta’s money, Henrietta reminded Herman, “If it were not for my money, this furniture wouldn’t be here.” When Herman had enough he finally said, “Henrietta, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but if it were not for your money, I wouldn’t be here.” There are some people who are home right now and if they were honest they would say, “The reason I am here instead of there is money.”
I want to conclude by mentioning two additional characteristics of the early church that should be duplicated in every church interested in being a nursery for believers. One is a spirit of enthusiasm and praise.
We have already seen that day by day these Christians were gathering for the teaching of the word of God, for sharing with one another, and for prayer. In verses 46-47 we are told with what spirit they were doing these things. In verse 46 the word “gladness” is used. They were meeting enthusiastically; they were happy to be together and it showed. Some folks go to church looking like if they had a good time and smiled their face would break. It wasn’t so in the early church. They gathered with gladness. And the words “sincerity of heart” indicate that their enthusiasm wasn’t just a show; the happiness came from within.
Verse 47 records that they were “praising God.” When the church gathers here each week, do you praise God while you are here? Do you speak to Him in song and in prayer and extol, or ascribe worth to, His character, name, and deeds? Ultimately no one can determine that but you. As worship leaders we can prepare to lead you to praise the Lord for who He is and all He does, and we can invite you to do so, but praise is a matter of the heart, so you must decide to respond to the character and deeds of God with praise. God is not concerned about the style of music or its publication date; He is interested in the condition of our hearts, and that must be our concern also. When the first Christians gathered they joined in praising God, and they were doing so with gladness and sincerity of heart.
What a beautiful balance there was in this first church in Jerusalem. Devotion to the teaching of the Word kept their enthusiasm from becoming a pep rally or a barn dance, and the enthusiasm and praise kept the Bible study from becoming merely an intellectual exercise. There was both instruction and emotion.
The last characteristic I want to call our attention to this morning is consistent evangelism.
The last part of verse 47 reads, “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Everywhere you turn in the book of Acts people are turning to Jesus. Why was that so? Because everywhere you turn in the book of Acts Christians are sharing Christ.
Seeing people coming to know Christ ought to be the heartbeat of all that we do in the church today. That means that our Sunday School classes are organized and mobilized for outreach. It means that in our discussions about finance and property we do not think merely of facts and figures, but we see everything as related to how resources can be used to lead people to Jesus. In fact, every committee is constantly evaluating its work by the question, “How will this help to reach someone without Christ?”
It means that in the choir we are faithful to practice and sing enthusiastically, not just because we happen to like music or because we have some ability in that area, but because we must do our very best to create an atmosphere that would be conducive to people deciding to follow Jesus. When the pastor preaches the simple Gospel showing someone how to receive Christ, Christians don’t say, “I already know that.” Instead they will be like those of whom the hymnwriter wrote: “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” So as we listen to the invitation there should be silent prayers being said all over our auditorium that someone would respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and decide to receive and follow Jesus. (N. Allan Moseley)
5th Sunday of Easter (A)
May 5, 1996
What Makes a House a Home?
(John 14:1-14)
Jesus has this uncanny knack of beginning where people are. He begins where the disciples are and He also begins where we are. It is even more inclusive than beginning with Mother’s Day or the Festival of the Christian Home. Here is an even broader net of care and concern that we are brought into this morning.
“Do not let your heart be troubled.” Is there a person here who has not had the experience of the heart being troubled? The deep well of our heart sometimes is roiled. These are the turbulent waters that suggest that I’m not at home, that I am in distress. It is being uncomfortable with who I am or where I am. Our hearts can be troubled.
Susan Cheever wrote a book called Home Before Dark. It was about her famous novelist father, John Cheever. She records the troubling times of his life. John Cheever was quoted in the book as saying that he knew God was ultimately in charge, but he had moved away from God. He said, “I want to go home but I have no home.”
There is deep within us, even within the troubled heart, the sense that we are created for a home, a place where we can be all that we were meant to be. I thought about that this week. What does it mean to be comfortable with this house we call our body? What about this house we call our outward circumstances, our job, our family? How do we make these houses homes? How do we discover what it is to be at home with ourselves and our lives. One of our deep struggles is to be at peace or at home even when everything seems to be changing.
Jesus said to those who were troubled in their heart, “In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places.” That word dwelling place in the Greek can mean a “wayside station” but here it can mean a permanent residence. “A place not built with human hands” has ceased to be a popular theme even within the Christian church. There are preachers and theologians that say in effect, “Listen, it’s tough enough communicating the Christian gospel. Don’t make me talk about things that may happen after this life.” So as modern Christian apologists, we become apologetic. There is no such diffidence when Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you.” That “place” is our heart’s hunger and our heart’s home.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, says that deep within every person there is a homing device. There is a home detector and it will not ring its bells for this earth. The problem is that every civilization has known that, except maybe our own. Kreeft says that although this world may do as a road, a training ground, a motel, it will not do as home. Jesus Christ said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” A home.
Simply put, our home is with God. When we speak about heaven, we are talking about moving beyond all those barriers that would keep us from God, and life in God’s presence. If that’s true, then it must begin now. As much as we are in God’s presence, we are experiencing our heart’s home. Our earthly adventure is to find the heart’s home.
Emily Dickinson was never accused of being a Christian theologian but she said, “Home is the definition of God.” Sometimes we don’t even know what’s wrong. We don’t know what we are longing for, but deep down we want to be at peace with ourselves, with other people, and with God. It is that hunger that was placed in us at the beginning, and all of the substitutes that we try to push down in that vacuum will not work.
“I go to prepare a place for you.” Think what would happen in this community if we were at home with ourselves. Imagine not trying to justify ourselves to others or grasping the little material possessions we have. We could freely and joyfully follow Christ knowing that all things were in God’s hands. This is the promise of Jesus, for He has died for us so that we might have this eternal home, beginning now.
Why is it that we take the most important things and value them? We take the things that won’t stand the test of time, let alone eternity, and make those the “biggies” in our life. Take the word “homemaker.” If you read John 14, you will find that Jesus Christ is the quintessential homemaker: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Zaccheus was made to be at home in his own house because of Jesus. Those who were told that they didn’t measure up, the publicans and sinners, came home in the grace of Jesus Christ. If it is true that Christ has prepared a home for us, then is it not also true that we have found a vocation or “calling” in him?
Men and women, young and old, are to be homemakers. You see the second meaning of that word “dwelling place” means resting places along the way. It means that as much as you open, with acceptance and love, your house to others, you are following the ministry of Jesus Christ who has set us at peace, and made us to be a people at home in and through him.
I never once thought about my mother and her role in my life as perfection, any more than she thought of me as perfect. I never heard that word. But what I do think of is that whenever I was around her I felt at home. Even in awkward circumstances, I felt at home. Do you know that is the greatest ministry that any of us are ever called to have? Parents can lead in that way by providing, along with others, space in which one can feel accepted and valued. It’s not a solo job. It has nothing to do with whether you work in or outside the home. “Homemaking” is so central and large that God needs all of us. Again home is a place where we are at peace with God, others, and ourselves.
A sociologist was trying to talk to a mother and get her to explain how she could love all of her thirteen children. “There has to be a favorite. Which one do you love the most?” She answered his nosy question, “I love the one most who is ill until she’s well; I love the one most who is away, until he is home.”
In Children’s Letters to God, a little girl named Nora said, “Dear God, Don’t you find it hard to love all of everybody in the whole world? There are only four in my family. I can never do it.” God loves us with an unconditional love that will not let us go even when we fall down. Even when we act out, that love finds us and gives us our home in and through Jesus Christ. I know that you won’t find the Beatitudes in the book of John, but there is a “blessed.” I heard it as an echo of Jesus’ promise to provide a place for us. It could be stated: “Blessed are the homemakers for they shall be in good company.” (Gary D. Stratman)
6th Sunday of Easter (A)
May 12, 1996
Mother’s Helper
(John 14:15-21)
“Troubled” and “fearful” were two words that would have accurately described Connie when she and her husband sat in my office and shared their marital strife. Marriage and motherhood had not been easy roles. With an unfaithful husband and a rebellious teenage son, she sometimes felt as if she was fighting for her sanity, to say nothing of the health of her marriage and the future of her children.
I listened and counseled as well as I could, and I remember praying for them. Several days later Connie called to tell me something that had happened. She said that she had spent some time that morning reading the Bible, and then as she was praying she was filled with an overwhelming sense of peace that she knew had come from God Himself. There followed a time of thanking God for His presence in her life and for the peace that He was sending to her turbulent spirit. Then there was a revelation that she felt was from the Lord and would give her the help she needed to cope with the problems in her family.
She said that one of the reasons that she was having such a hard time at home was that she was looking to her husband to provide the things that only God can provide. Not that she was excusing the poor behavior of her husband, but it had struck her that morning that God is the only One who can supply ultimate, spiritual peace, security, love and contentment. She had been looking to her husband to give those things, and though it was her husband’s proper role to help meet her needs and minister to her, even if he did not she could count on the Lord to be there for her and give her strength. He did give her strength, even to endure and prosper in a less-than-enviable marriage.
Connie’s story, and the stories of millions of others, confirm the truth of what Jesus said to His disciples in the final few days of His earthly life. He said that He was going to leave, but “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” He spoke of coming to them, and to us, as a Helper. The Greek word translated “Helper” literally means “Called beside.” Jesus called to our side a “Helper.” “Counselor” or “Comforter” as the word is sometimes translated. That was good news to the disciples that day. It was certainly good news to Connie as she experienced the help that the presence of Christ provided.
When you think about it, moms today are in special need of help. Our society is worse than it has ever been. We don’t just let our children play anywhere as long as it’s in bike-riding distance; it’s not safe any more. A young father told me recently that he is almost obsessed with the safety of his two toddlers; what if someone hurt one of them or stole one of them?
The very fact that we know more today puts more pressure on mothers. “Will the baby nurse properly if I don’t hold it within ten minutes of birth?” “If it doesn’t nurse properly will its psyche be permanently warped somehow?” “Will the crib mobiles we bought contribute adequately to the baby’s intellectual development?” “Do we have the right kind of car seat?” “How will the school merger affect our children?”
And even parents of adults have their own set of problems. They are concerned that their grown children are not growing spiritually. “Did we do something wrong in raising him?” They worry about the stability of Junior’s marriage, or the termination of the marriage. “Will all that arguing or the divorce affect the grandchildren irreparably?” “Troubled” and “fearful” are words that describe most parents at some point today. We need a helper. And so the promise of Christ about the help of the Holy Spirit comes as good news to us.
The question is, “How do we access that help?”
I. The help of the Holy Spirit begins with a choice.
Jesus promised that the Helper would come, and He did come at Pentecost. He is with and in every person who has received Jesus Christ. He is in the life of every believer; our choice is whether to access His power or to live in our own strength.
In Galatians 5:25 Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” In other words, the Spirit has come into our lives and has given us life. That much is true for every believer. One reason a lot of church people don’t know that spiritual life is simply because they have never really received Christ; they merely are playing church. But if an individual has received Jesus Christ, then the Helper has been called beside. The question, or choice, is whether we will walk in the Spirit or walk in the flesh. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”
During the course of our everyday lives, how do we walk by the Spirit? When I drove to church this morning, my car got here by gasoline, not by Allan. My flesh was not used to move the car down the road; if I had physically pushed the car I would have been late. It was not by flesh but by gasoline. The only reason I made it was because the car had been filled with gas. The only way you will walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh is to be filled with the Spirit. Ephesians 5:18 is a command: “Be filled with the Spirit.”
In your home, in your relationships with your family, what is driving you? Is it the flesh or is it the Spirit? The only way to access the help and power of the Spirit is to choose to be filled with the Spirit.
Have you really come to grips with your need for the help of the Spirit of God in your family life? If you have, then you will have a desire for the Holy Spirit to fill you and enable you to be the wife, mother, husband, father, or child that God intends for you to be. If you have not realized your need for the help of the Holy Spirit, let me tell you what is going to happen in your home. First, you will relate to your spouse in about the same way that your parents related to one another. Second, you will raise your children about the same way your parents raised you. Even if you swear on a stack of Bibles that you will never treat your kids the way you were treated, in some ways (and perhaps in many ways) you will catch yourself acting the same way your parents acted. Why? Because you are living according to the flesh; you have lapsed into life by instinct. The only way to break the fleshly intergenerational cycle is to access God’s help to make you different; that comes through your choice to be filled with the Spirit.
Maybe your parents did a great job raising you. I happen to think that my mother and father were great parents. Still, I am not to be like my mother and father; I am to be like Jesus. And the only way that we will be like Jesus in our families, and not like the model our parents provided or the models we see on TV. is to access the help of the Holy Spirit. That comes by our choice to be filled.
Could it be your choice today to say to the Lord, “Father, I need Your help to be all that I should be every moment in my home. Too often I have found myself repeating the mistakes of the past, and too often I have looked to others to provide the peace that comes only from You. Fill me with Your Spirit so that I may have both Your power and Your comfort.” That’s a choice all of us should make.
II. The help of the Holy Spirit results in a change.
The presence of God in our lives brings many changes. In the text we read, Jesus said that the Helper is a Teacher: “He will teach you all things” (v. 26). In John 16:13, Jesus said, “He will guide you into all the truth.” Doesn’t it help you to know that as you raise your children you will have all truth at your disposal? We parents ask ourselves all the time, “Am I telling my children the right things? Is the counsel I am giving wise counsel? Is it God’s counsel?” It can be; God has sent us One to help us to know the truth. His truth and knowledge make us wise, and His wisdom is what your children really need.
I read about a mother who had been asked often what she did for a living. She got tired of seeing the unimpressed blank stares when she said that she was a stay-at-home mom. So she changed her answer to that question. When asked what her job is, she says, “Brain surgery — non-invasive, daily brain surgery.” She is right; that is exactly what mothers do. And God has provided us with help in performing that delicate, spiritual operation. As we train our children in the way that they should go, we have a Helper who teaches us all things, and guides us into the truth.
When the Helper fills our lives He brings many other changes. Look at Galatians 5:22-23. Paul calls these changes in our character and behavior “fruit.” An apple tree produces apples. A peach tree produces peaches. What kind of fruit does the Spirit produce in us? He helps us to be like Jesus. And when Mom and Dad and the children are filled with and controlled by the Spirit, they are right with God and right with one another, and the home becomes a little bit of heaven on earth.
Realistically, I know that there will be moments when you respond in selfishness, not in love, and in anger, not in patience. Times will come when anxiety and fear replace God’s peace, and those things can ruin the atmosphere in a home. But I also know that in those times if you ask Him, God will fill you with the Helper, and He will bring the changes in you that need to be made.
The help that God provides begins with a choice, and results in a change.
III. The help of the Holy Spirit holds forth a challenge.
God offers us help to live as we ought in our homes; the challenge is to live by that help instead of living in our own strength. The challenge is to learn to be dependent on His sufficiency rather than living independently in our own insufficiency.
I once heard about a lady who got a job at a yarn factory. She was told that at the first sign of trouble she was to call the foreman. In fact, there were signs posted throughout the building — in the break room and at her work station — “Call the foreman at the first sign of trouble.”
She had been working there a few days when her yarn became tangled. She tried to work it out and then her tangles got into a tangle and before long she had a gigantic mess. Finally she called the foreman and said, “I did my best!” And he said, “No ma’am. Your best would have been to call the foreman at the first sign of trouble.”
Moms, dads, grandparents, children, the best that you can do for your family is not to do your best, but to call on the Helper for His best. The Bible says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30). And it says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (I Thess. 5.19). How do we grieve and quench the Spirit? We do it by refusing His presence and help in order to live in the energy of the flesh. The challenge is to call on Him and ask for His help.
I’m learning to call on Him at the first sign of trouble. When I want to be angry or fuss over some little thing, I’m learning to call on Him lest a little tangle become a big tangle. The tragedy in some families is that they tried to untangle their troubles without the Helper for years, and when they finally called on God it was in such a mess that it will take a lifetime to straighten it out.
Don’t let it be that way in your home. We need a Helper. Thank God that the divine Helper, the Holy Spirit, is available to you. Let’s call on Him. (N. Allan Moseley)
7th Sunday of Easter (A)
May 19, 1996
Decision, Decisions
(Acts 1:6-14)
After the resurrection of Jesus, He appeared to His disciples many times and in various circumstances over a period of forty days. But He knew and they came to understand, that His physical presence with them was only temporary. Numerous times He had told them that He was returning to God the Father and they would soon encounter God the Spirit. So the event of Christ’s ascension into heaven, however traumatic it may have been, was not unexpected.
For His last physical meeting with His apostles Jesus led them to the Mount of Olives. In his gospel, Luke specifies the vicinity of Bethany, which was on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives and would have been familiar to the apostles since they had spent their nights there with Jesus while they were in the area of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is just across the valley from Jerusalem and it rises 400 feet from the Kidron Valley, which is the valley immediately east of the eastern wall of Jerusalem. The eastern section of the city is on Mt. Zion, which rises 200 feet from the Kidron Valley. So people stand on the Mount of Olives they look down 200 feet and across the valley at Jerusalem. Luke also specifies that their distance from Jerusalem was “a Sabbath day’s journey”. That distance was the limit that Jews were supposed to walk on the Sabbath day according to Jewish law, or a little more than half a mile. At that point Jesus had His last conversation with the apostles and it was from there He ascended into the sky.
Let me say parenthetically the purpose of the ascension of Jesus was not merely so that He could get to the heavenly Father. He could have just vanished and immediately have been in heaven. According to the accounts of His resurrection appearances He could apparently appear and disappear at will. So the ascension did not occur because God is up there somewhere and Jesus had to travel to Him; it was for two reasons.
First, it was for the benefit of the apostles. Jesus had been coming and going in their presence for forty days. If He just vanished again, how would they know that this had been His final appearance with them? Would they wonder if perhaps He would appear again? Watching Jesus ascend into heaven sealed in their minds that the time period for the revelation of God the Son in physical form was over. Another reason for the ascension was in order to declare that Jesus would return in the same way, which the angels announced as soon as He was out of sight — “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (v. 11).
Jesus is coming again. The angels were not speaking of Jesus coming on the occasion of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. They weren’t talking about the “coming” of Jesus into a person’s life when he or she receives Him. And they weren’t referring to the “coming” of Jesus to meet someone at their death. Each of these fallacious ideas have been offered as interpretations of the second coming of Jesus, but they are misinterpretations. The angels announced that He will come one day in the same manner that He left — through the clouds — and other passages in the New Testament confirm their message. But someone who is new to Christianity may ask, “What is the relationship between His first coming and His second coming? Did He fail the first time so that He needs a second chance?” Not at all. As someone has said, “The first time He came to redeem; the second time He will come to reign. The first time He came to die, the second time He will bring resurrection to the bodies of millions. The first time He was born King of the Jews; the second time He will be revealed as the King of kings. The first time He came in poverty; but He shall return in power. The first time He was given a crown of thorns; but the second time He will wear a crown of glory.” He is coming again.
But what about the interim period of time between His first coming and His second coming? For three years Jesus had been physically present with the apostles. During that time they had the opportunity to watch the way He acted and listen to His teaching. They didn’t have to wonder where to go, they just followed Him. If they had a question they just asked Him. But after the ascension of Jesus and before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost they were on their own. What were they going to do? Where were they going to stay?
They were living in a period of time in which they had to make up their own minds about some basic issues. The way they acted during those ten days is instructive to us, because even though we live after Pentecost and have the Holy Spirit to guide us, the way they made their decisions during this time can serve as a model for us.
I want to mention three decisions that the disciples of Jesus had to make during these days, and I think we’ll see that we have similar decisions to make about many issues that we face. The first decision was whether to stand and stare or obey and pray.
After Jesus ascended into heaven the apostles continued to stare into the sky. Wouldn’t you? A man had just lifted off the ground — no propulsion, wires, or mirrors — and floated into the clouds until He was out of sight. I picture the apostles standing there sort of like Gomer Pyle, saying “Shazam!” It was a natural thing to continue to look into the sky. One preacher said that they were standing there “looking their eyes out.”
Then two angels appeared. Luke called them “two men in white clothing”, which is a common biblical designation for angelic messengers. These angels asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” In a way, it was a silly question. The disciples probably wanted to say, “Why are we looking? Just look at the traffic up there! One going up and two coming down — this is spectacular! No telling what’s going to happen next; we don’t want to miss anything.”
But the intent of the angels’ question was to rouse the apostles from their sky-gazing and bring their attention back down to earth long enough to remember what Jesus had told them to do. Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father (v. 4) — to send the Spirit. Earlier He had told them, “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). The question at this point was, “Are the disciples going to obey what Jesus told them to do?”
It’s easy for us to overlook the fact that staying in Jerusalem was probably not what the apostles would have chosen to do. Their homes were in Galilee, as were their livelihoods, and Jerusalem was in Judea. Jerusalem was where Jesus had been betrayed, tried and killed. His enemies, and therefore their enemies, were still there. In Jerusalem they were surrounded by Pharisees and Roman soldiers. Would they be arrested as followers of Jesus? It’s unlikely that Jerusalem would have been their choice of destinations for a dream vacation. But that is where Jesus told them to stay, and they obeyed.
Jesus also told them to wait, and we understand how difficult that is. We get frustrated if the line at the fast food restaurant moves too slowly, or if we have to wait ten seconds for our computer to complete a task. Imagine these guys walking back into Jerusalem discussing what they were going to do. One of them says, “We need to stay in Jerusalem; that’s what Jesus told us to do.” And then another one asks, “Where are we going to stay in Jerusalem?” “Well, I don’t know; Jesus didn’t tell us that. Come to think of it, He didn’t tell us what we are supposed to do while we stay here. In fact, He didn’t tell us how long we are supposed to wait, either.” There were a lot of blanks that Jesus had not filled in for them.
That should give us some comfort, since often there are many things about the will of God that we don’t understand either. We may know that He is leading us to do something for Him, but there are still many unanswered questions. Do we suspend, or delay, our obedience until God is forthcoming with all of the information we require of Him, or do we obey what He told us to do and wait for Him to give us further leadership and insight on His timetable? If Jesus is our Master we will choose the latter, and that’s what the apostles did.
Obviously Jesus could have chosen to ascend into the clouds and send the Holy Spirit immediately, but He didn’t. He wanted His followers to be people who could wait for God, who would depend on the coming of God’s power working through them, not people who would work for God according to their own calendars and resources. One of the hardest things in the world for us to do is to wait on God. When we don’t have specific direction from Him our inclination is to tear off and do what we want to do rather than wait on His guidance for the next step. But it is in the waiting times that God prepares us for the next phase of our lives. And if we don’t learn to wait for Him and to be willing to act on His timing and to be open to His supervision, then He can’t use us. We’re still too full of ourselves.
The disciples returned to Jerusalem to an upper room, possibly the same room where they had shared the last supper before Jesus was arrested. What did they do while they waited for those ten days? The same thing we should do in times of waiting or at any other time — they prayed. Some people picture them locked up in this room until they came up for air on the day of Pentecost — sort of like a sequestered jury. But Luke tells us they were also regularly going to the temple. The most prominent feature of their time in the upper room was their praying; that is what Luke recorded in verse 14: “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.”
Some teach that they were praying for the Spirit and His power to come upon them. I believe that the Holy Spirit would have come on the day of Pentecost whether they prayed for it or not, since God had already promised it. But I also believe that there is a dynamic connection between our prayer lives and our readiness to receive what God has planned for us.
Someone has called prayer the currency, or medium of exchange, between needy persons and a rich God. The person who is rich in prayer is rich. Our problem is that we want large spiritual returns on small investments in prayer. The disciples prayed for ten days; there are many things in the spiritual life that you will never know if you pray for ten minutes. The disciples’ prayer was a prelude to their purpose of sharing the gospel with everyone, and so should ours be. And we don’t receive great spiritual power for that task when our prayers read like the patient list at the hospital or the obituary column.
If you want to be a witness with spiritual power, wait before God in prayer. Before we talk about God in the marketplace we are to talk to God in the secret place. These disciples prevailed in public because they had prayed in private.
Their first decision was whether to stand and stare or obey and pray. They chose the latter. Next they had to decide whether to be lone rangers or team players.
Look again at verse 14: “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.” The followers of Jesus were together, and they were of one mind. I take that to mean that they were there with the same vision — the imminent coming of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. They were there with the same disposition — the disposition of prayer and obedience to what Jesus had told them to do. They were there with the same mission — to be catapulted into the world by the Spirit of God to tell the good news about the forgiveness and new life that could be found in Jesus. And from all we read in the first chapters of the book of Acts, they were so preoccupied with these concerns that issues that could have divided them were not even raised. Usually that is the case. As long as Christians focus on their own need for the Spirit and the world’s need for Christ they do not normally fuss with one another about things like the color of the carpet. Divisions occur when we lose sight of what we are here for in the first place.
When we are not preoccupied with Christ’s command and commission then that void is often filled with our agendas which are potentially divisive. And if we go down that road long enough one day we wake up and it doesn’t even seem that strange for us to spend our time, not talking to unbelievers about Christ or talking to God in prayer, but talking to other Christians about whether you liked the tie the pastor wore, or who said what about whom, or how “they” do things down there at the church. But when we see ourselves as an island of believers in our Jerusalem surrounded by people drowning without Christ we normally don’t spend a lot of time divided over whether to throw the life preserver side arm or over arm. We have a sense of urgency about the work of the kingdom, so we are of one mind.
It’s amazing what God can do with a group of people who are of one mind and who are willing to do what these Christians were doing — waiting on God, praying, and obeying. Little is much when God is in it. Did you notice how many disciples were in that upper room? In verse 15 Luke recorded that there were about 120. Can you imagine launching a worldwide missionary campaign from a church with 120 members? Sounds unreasonable, impossible, but that’s what Jesus did, and these disciples had faith to believe and obey Him. Little is much when God is in it.
Also, weak is powerful when God is in it. Put yourself in that upper room for a moment and look around at the people who are there. Eleven of the apostles are there. The brothers of Jesus were also present; they had not believed in Jesus earlier in His ministry but at some point had become His followers. Some of the women who had been followers of Jesus were there, as was Mary the mother of Jesus. There is no indication that Mary had any special status among the early believers. This is the last time she is mentioned in the New Testament, and she is presented here as just another of the disciples of Jesus, praying to Him and obeying His command to remain in Jerusalem.
With the people in that room God began a movement to call people to Himself that turned the Roman Empire around and that has changed the history of the world. Weak is powerful when God is in it.
Before the final fall of the domination of communism, a young woman in an Eastern European country heard about Jesus and was converted. Her communist parents made her leave home. In the course of six months, her quiet but effective witness resulted in the conversion of seven students at the school she attended. As a result, she was expelled. She obtained a job in a bakery, and within the next six months she led ten of her fellow workers to faith in Christ. She lost her job and citizenship; she was exiled. But in another country she was instrumental in the formation of a church with forty members. This young lady proved, as did those first believers in that upper room, that God does not need the power, authority or wisdom of this world to achieve His purposes. Weak is powerful when God is in it.
Those are the kinds of things that happen when a group of people are team players under the sovereign direction of God. They focus on what they have in common: a common vision of the filling of the Spirit of God, a common disposition of prayer and obedience, and a common mission to take the good news about Jesus to other people. These Christians decided to be team players, not lone rangers. They decided to obey and pray, not just to stand and stare. Take your place among those who are disciples of Jesus and are learning to wait on Him, to talk to Him in prayer, to obey Him, and to follow His instructions. It’s a decision you won’t regret. (N. Allan Moseley)
Pentecost (A)
May 26, 1996
A Whole New World
(Acts 2:1-21)
Disney’s film, Aladdin, was not the first attempt at painting A Whole New World. In this century, Aldous Huxley published a Utopian novel he entitled A Brave New World. It depicts life in a way none of us would want, but in a way the agnostic author foresaw. You would have to be more than brave to live in a world like that! He borrowed the title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.1 Somehow I think the Bard would have had a different vision and dreamed a different dream.
Similarly the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak ventured forth into this country from his homeland to compose. Here he was inspired to write his Ninth Symphony, which is popularly called the New World Symphony, although its actual title is from the New World. Dvorak found that “new world” in Spillville, Iowa.
Yet it was the Prophet Joel who saw more than a brave new world or anything From the New World, but a whole world made new by the advent of the Holy Spirit:
“I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh,” said God, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon My slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out My Spirit; and they shall prophesy,” says God of this whole new world.
A Whole New World was the intent of The Flood in Genesis. It was the purpose of Christ’s advent. It was to be the mission of the Holy Spirit that He brought with Him that Pentecost. He roared into Jerusalem with the violent rush of wind and tongues of dancing flame.
After every war, humankind has resolved to keep the peace and allow a whole new world to sprout out of the ashes of the old. It is never long before the angry threats of sharpened swords and smart bombs color positive hopes gloomy gray and body counts begin to make headlines.
No one ever says, “Happy Memorial Day!” They may wish you a happy weekend or “Have a nice holiday,” but they will never say, “Happy Memorial Day.” Memorial Day is a day that deserves respect and honor for it seeks to esteem the heroic dead of our many wars for whom this day is intended as a solemn remembrance.
Memorial Day recalls the sacrifices of men and women and youth over more than two centuries of American history. They defended our freedom, those who died and were wounded in preserving its peace. They sought to liberate those imprisoned by oppression, those who fought on foreign fields and spilled blood in the process. They defended noble causes and glorious truths, those who served their brothers and sisters in resistance to servile hatred and dehumanizing bigotry. Memorial Day is intended as a day of remembrance rather than a day for frolicking and frivolity. It’s a day of earnest recollection, memorializing the fallen and remembering those who still serve their flag and country with the readiness to sacrifice themselves if necessary. It’s a solemn, respectful holiday.
Yet it is also Pentecost! “Have a happy Pentecost!” is an appropriate greeting among Christians. “Celebrate the Spirit!” we might say to one another. “Rejoice in the Holy Ghost,” someone might respond. “Happy Birthday, Christian Church!” we can all sing and say, for this is the day that commemorates the advent of God’s Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. Ten days after Jesus’ Ascension, He came to lead the Church as the Lord promised. Though He certainly existed before that day and was active throughout time, on Pentecost He came for a deliberate purpose. In His coming, we may see reminders of God’s hope for a whole new world.
Pentecost is a time for rejoicing, for celebrating and being merry! But it is also a time of recollection, of remembering, of recalling the power unleashed that day the Holy Spirit swept into Jerusalem and the Church of Jesus Christ was born.
Both Memorial Day and Pentecost are days of remembrance. The one cause is sobering; the other is exhilarating. Both remember the same goal, however, for they both stem from the same hope … and that is to insure peace within humanity and before God. It’s a time to remember the tragedy of war, the triumph of God’s Spirit, and the truth of being the Church so that we can participate in God’s plan for a whole new world.
A whole new world? If that’s God’s intention and humanity’s desire, shouldn’t we reflect on the tragedy of war? It is Memorial Day! There have been a half dozen big and little wars this nation has fought in my lifetime. Whether counted in days or years, war seldom makes for a whole new world. Often it makes only new holes in the world and in lives, craters from bombs and the emptiness within the hearts of many for the loss of life it begets. We may remodel the architecture and redraw boundaries through anguished battles, but warfare is seldom a prelude to cosmic renewal of eternal dimensions and spiritual depth.
St. Augustine once wrote: “War and conquest are a sad necessity in the eyes of men of principle, yet it would be still more unfortunate if wrongdoers should dominate just men.” “When does war become a sad necessity?” asks the Christian Century.2 It becomes necessary only when human beings deny other human beings the same rights they seek, for there cannot be a double standard that opposing sides will accept. Freedom must belong to all, just as the Good News is given for everyone.
But wars do not necessarily produce new worlds and new determinations for peace. Two leading futurists observe, “The generation that fought World War II found its faith strained by the horrors of battle and the death camps, then watched as many of its children rejected virtually all their traditional values for the hedonistic life prevalent in the 1960’s.”3
What is needed is for the prophecy of Joel to happen anew. When young men see visions and old men dream dreams, God’s Spirit will dance through their minds to show them more than psychedelic rainbows, but signs of hope as we truly learn to love one another. It is for us constantly to pray that God will pour out His Spirit anew, for Pentecost to happen again, for this whole world to be made new.
That’s what we term the triumph of the Spirit. That’s the antidote to the tragedy of war. God’s Spirit is not a bitter pill to be swallowed, but power to use. It’s power to heal physical ills and correct crippled minds. It’s a power to defuse hatred and infuse love. That calls for excitement, for enthusiasm, for the positive will to employ the power to make this world whole and new.
Wayne Dehoney says, “Causes without passion are lost causes.” He reminds us that, “A sense of divine call has always characterized the man of God. Again and again, we read, ‘The word of the Lord came … to Jonah, to Amos, to Jeremiah, to Isaiah, [to Joel], to Paul, to Peter.’ Each responded to that call with a reckless holy zeal.”4 The triumph of the Spirit is that He breaks through our lethargy and stirs into a tempest of excitement, inflaming us with enthusiasm to build the Church. He stirs us as a holy wind to blow away negativism and bring breezes to make whole a shattered world. Let God’s Spirit excite you to be a triumphant follower, a victorious leader, a conquering believer.
There could have been no more difficult person for the Holy Spirit to penetrate than C.S. Lewis. He was an agnostic, an intellectual, and wrote of the “whole man” he thought he was. Yet there was something missing in this Oxford don. Writes his biographer, “He began to feel himself approached by God, and in the summer of 1929 went through a mystical experience. As befitted a man who had sung the pleasures of the ordinary, it occurred on a bus going up Headington Hill…” We learn there were no words said, but Lewis was aware he was stifling something important. He was wearing spiritual armor that prevented God from breaking through. But after that strange event upon the bus, “he felt as if he were a snowman ‘at last beginning to melt.'”5
Clive Stapes Lewis went on to become one of the most revered apologists for Christ and Christianity this century has known, a triumphant spokesman for our Lord and what Lewis termed Mere Christianity. The victory of the Holy Spirit in his life inspired this master of the English language to share the truths of our faith in book after book. Much of it was in The Chronicles of Narnia and other stories that delighted young and old alike, as well as masterful plays and great books. He kept England spellbound beside the radio through much of World War II as he gave that struggling nation hope in radio talks about basic Christianity.
Lewis encountered the Holy Wind of Pentecost on board a bus; John Wesley was warmed by it in a house on London’s Aldersgate Street as Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was being read; T.S. Eliot, the American-born British poet and playwright, discovered “a call coming through the New England fog, or a vision of radiant light in an English garden,” and so was confirmed in the Church of England. Lewis saw himself as a “whole man”, and Eliot regarded himself somewhat as a “hollow man”, irresolute, ill-at-ease and waiting.6 Yet both, like Wesley before them, knew the triumph of the Holy Spirit in their lives and work.
Let that triumphant Spirit warm you, inspire you, encourage you and send you dancing out into the world with Good News as He did the apostles of yore. The objective is a whole new world, and without your own spiritual renewal such dreams that dreamers dream can never happen to you; such a vision as seers see can never be seen by you. Accept the Spirit’s coming with open arms and a welcoming heart and move with Him to be the enthusiastic Church that lives.
The tragedy of war diverts our attention, but the triumph of the Spirit is that He continues to call us into the truth that is the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Bible is not a tepid book. It is fiery. But all too many of God’s people have cold hearts because they have not quaffed the hot liquid of God’s Word. If you’re one of God’s frozen people, get thawed! Study the Word. Let the Holy Spirit inflame you with a passion for soul-winning, and a desire to serve. He is calling you anew to make the world whole and new.
The Spirit rode into Jerusalem on the violence of a fierce, transforming wind. Reports Luke, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The ability comes from God the Holy Spirit … if we avail ourselves of it!
Writes Calvin Miller in Christianity Today, “Pentecost is not merely a day on the church calendar; it is fire and wind able to blow and burn at any time. The elation is inebriating…And like the Jerusalem disciples, our elation will make us appear as though we have gotten ‘drunk’ on God (Acts 2:13).”7
Futurists tell us that, “…no one can talk about the future without giving science and technology their due… And yet other forces — some cultural, others social — are at work in the United States. Some will govern this country’s future almost as profoundly as technology does. In the human terms that shape a society, a few may work even greater changes on it as the twenty-first century approaches.”8 They speak of these “forces” as “agents of change”. There is no more apt title for the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit blows into this planet yet with a freshness that assures of a whole new world!
But maybe we’re more like George, Seinfeld’s buddy in the TV sitcom. George is about to make it big with a TV pilot about their lives, but he can’t believe it. He tells his therapist, “God would never let me be successful. He’ll kill me first.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in God,” she states.
“I do for the bad things,” he answers.9
That’s an echo of much of Christianity in these insightful words. That’s why it’s imperative that we link Pentecost with Memorial Day. Memorial Day tells us God is with us even in the terrible facts of war and death, in the bad things of national calamity and personal sacrifice. But Pentecost reminds us God isn’t a vengeful and spiteful God, who shores us up only in the bleak times. God is eternally loving and everlastingly encouraging. He sent Jesus so that we have a reason to commit ourselves to a whole new world. He redeems us. Jesus paid the price.
Good Friday’s atonement paved the way for Easter’s triumph. Then God sent the Holy Spirit precisely so that we could not wind up like George thinking God is only a negative brute, but to inflame us within with a passion to serve, causing us to ride on the stirring, violent breezes of love into a world worthy — in God’s eyes — of saving.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Isn’t that God’s way of saying He’s determined to have a whole new world? He means for us to participate in its wholeness and renewal — not like Huxley, writing about brave, but decadent worlds. Not even as Dvorak with symphonic poems that sing for only a moment or two, but like Peter and the apostles who spent themselves turning the world upside down to make it whole and new. (Richard Anderson)
1Shakespeare, William; The Tempest; Act V, Scene 1, Line 183.
2Wall, James M., “Not a Time for Heroes,” Christian Century; May 12, 1993; Vol. 110, No. 16; page 508.
3Cetron, Marvin & Davies, Owen, American Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 297.
4Dehoney, Wayne, Set the Church Afire! (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), pp. 70-71.
5Wilson, A.N., C.S. Lewis, A Biography (New York: Norton, 1990), pp. 109-110.
6Gordon, Lyndall; Eliot’s New Life (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), pp. 2, 37.
7Miller, Calvin. “The Cardinal and Brother Buckskin” in Christianity Today; Vol 37, No. 6; May 17, 1993; page 36.
8Op. Cit.; Cetron & Davies, page 5.
9Quoted by Mike Antonucci, TV Writer, San Jose Mercury News; May 20, 1993; page 5E.
Trinity Sunday (A)
June 2, 1996
Where Do We Go From Here?
(Matthew 28:16-20)
Have you ever gotten lost? You were driving along listening to the radio, when suddenly things don’t seem quite right. The road signs don’t read as you expected them to read. You pull over to the side of the road to try to get your bearings. The big question is: where do we go from here?
That may well have been the question on the minds of Jesus’ disciples that day as He led them out to the Mount of Olives. The preceding weeks had been a tumultuous time — the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, His miraculous resurrection and appearances to them, and these final days of teaching. It was almost too much to absorb.
Certainly Jesus knew the questions that were on their minds; He also knew that in these final moments of His ministry on earth, every word was precious. This was a time He would focus like a laser on the most important message He could give them about their future as His followers.
It was not only a set of orders for that original group of disciples; it is also meant for those of us who follow in their path centuries later. Where do we go from here?
The answer is clear in these verses: we go to those who need to hear the gospel, wherever they may be. But Jesus provides a roadmap that shows us how we reach this destination of discipleship.
I. How do We Go? We Go in His Power and Authority
Our denominational convention was meeting in Las Vegas (what a place for a bunch of Baptists!), and I decided to rent a car and drive out to see the Hoover Dam. I had just driven past the dam when I noticed that the gasoline gauge was on empty! I had just rented the car a couple of hours before, so I was sure it was a mistake. Wrong again! It was nothing short of a divine gift that as I coasted to a stop, I was not far from a small gas station that was still open. But it is a vivid memory: you don’t want to run out of fuel in the desert!
But we do it all the time, don’t we? We are doing our best to maneuver through this life under our own steam, in our own power, rather than availing ourselves of the limitless power of Christ which He has freely offered. And our power is simply not sufficient for the challenges we face as believers.
Christ tells us (v. 18) that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Why do we insist on using our own tiny fuel tanks when the power of heaven is available to us?
How do we gain access to that power? The disciples would learn the secret to that in just a few days, when the Holy Spirit blew through their midst, filling and empowering them on the day of Pentecost. Even today, the Spirit is present in the life of every believer, and stands ready to offer all we need if we will but yield ourselves to His leading.
II. Why Do We Go? We Go to Share the Gospel
At the end of his or her education at one of our military academies, like West Point or Annapolis, the cadet receives a commission. The cadet is now an officer, a part of a greater force with all of the responsibilities that involves.
When you gave your life to Christ, you also received a commission, and it is found in this text: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20a).
What does it mean to share the gospel? It involves baptizing — leading people to make an initial commitment to Christ; sharing the good news of what Christ has done for us. It involves discipling — modeling the walk of a believer, and encouraging them in that walk. And it involves teaching — instructing new believers in the truths of God’s Word.
Authentic evangelism has not taken place until each of these steps has been taken. It is not enough to simply collect “spiritual scalps” without also providing the teaching and support required to make a good start in the Christian life. Anything less would be like a maternity ward that assists with the moment of childbirth, then fifteen minutes later puts mother and baby on the street!
We are commissioned to share the gospel at home and around the world.
III. With Whom Do We Go? We Go in the Presence of Christ
How frightening it must have been in those moments just after Jesus gave the disciples this commission and then ascended out of their presence. Yet they had the promise of His presence, even though they did not yet fully understand how He would be with them.
On this side of Pentecost, however, we know that Christ dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. He is with us always, providing the direction, comfort and strength we need to follow Christ.
Do you ever feel alone, as if no one is there for you? Trust Christ, and experience His indwelling presence. He will never leave you or forsake you.
We are commissioned to go into all the world, but we do not go alone. We go with Christ, and that makes all the difference. (Michael Duduit)
Proper 5 (A)
June 9, 1996
Reckoned
(Romans 4:14-25)
What is all this fussing and arguing over anyway? What difference does it make what a person believes? All that really matters is how they treat other people, right? Well, that is what all this fussing and arguing has been over for more than 2,000 years. And as good Reformed Theologians — that is as good Protestant Presbyterians — as good students of the New Testament, we have heard this debate over and over, and we know that we are justified by faith and not by works.
Earlier in this letter to the emerging church at Rome, Paul has quoted one of the great models of faith, David: “So David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sins.”
And then Paul asks the primary question, “Is this blessing pronounced only upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised?” Is it just those who are vested in the Covenant by their obedience to the law or is that blessing of God possible for those who are not a part of the covenant group?
The question Paul is attempting to deal with, and the question that is still central to all religious striving, is “How can one enter into a right relationship with God so that one may inherit the blessings of God?” It is the question which the Rich Young Ruler comes and asks Jesus: “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is asked by the Buddhists in terms of how to reach Nirvana. It is offered by Islam as the Five Pillars to fulfill the will of Allah.
How do we enter into a vital, dynamic and vibrant relationship with God in order that God can fulfill His intentions for creation, for us, and we can receive the full measure of life that God intends to give us?
There has been a lot of blood spilt over that question. It is this question that is still at heart of every debate over moral and ethical behavior. Does certain behavior exclude you from a right relationship with God? How does one enter into a right relationship with God so that one may inherit the blessings of God?”
As in so many fights there are lots of different positions but more often than not they all get bunched together into one side or another. We tend to force issues to be black or white, yes or no, America: love it or leave it. Liberal or conservative. How do we enter into a right relationship with God? One side ends up being described as those who say you get on God’s good side, by obedience. You enter into a right relationship by doing what God says.
The children of Israel were God’s elect people and were blessed because they had been given the Law. They knew better than any other people what God wanted because God had given Moses the Law, and by His prophets God had given them further understanding of the Law. We have entered into a covenant with God who has given us the requirements and we keep the law and we receive the blessings of God. Obey God and He will bless and reward you. What you get from God is based on what you do, how you act, by your deeds, not what you think, feel, want, hope, dream or love.
One side of this controversy says that a person must acquire merit in the sight of God through doing works which the law prescribes. It is by our own efforts, by our own deeds, by our own obedience. They pointed to Father Abraham and said, “He is our model and He was blessed by God because he was obedient. He obeyed God and he was rewarded. He was told to pick up his family and leave his home and he would be blessed. He did and he was.” End of debate.
Well, Paul’s side sees it differently. Paul had tried the law and he knew that in his own case all that law ever did was make him angry, infuriate him because no matter how much he did, he always saw the law as convicting him of failure. The more he tried to obey, the more he discovered that he had not done enough.
So Paul says that one enters a right relationship with God by that wonderful gift of the promise of God’s free grace and the human faith which simply takes God at His promise. It is not by works of obedience but one enters by faith into a relationship with God, which by God’s grace and promise already exists for one to come into by trust.
Abraham is the prime example of this relationship of faith and trust. Look at the man. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham believed, trusted, hoped, lived in confidence in God and that is how he became the father of many nations. Not the law, because Abraham didn’t have the law when he was called out of Ur. It wasn’t because of circumcision; he hadn’t been circumcised when the promise of blessings was given. It isn’t the law because law always takes the personal out of it. If the blessings came by the law, then the blessings are our due and it is mechanical. God’s hands are tied and God’s freedom of action is gone. Only if it is a promise, like you make your children — which is often a struggle to keep and yet so powerful when kept — is the freedom of God preserved. If it is on the basis of the law, all the law can ever do is mark iniquity; the law never brings joy.
Paul makes his argument that the promise to all of us rests on faith because only by grace and faith can we really talk about it being a promise. Only on the basis of grace and faith can the promise be offered to all those who believe and not just the Jews and the circumcised. The law never seems to produce a promise but only wrath. Paul shows us a promise made out of the generous and loving heart of God, not the requirement of a code book. Faith is the certainty that God is gracious, and grace is always something which is unearned and undeserved.
Abraham’s relationship with God was based on faith and trust and not built upon obedience to the commandments of God. That is the quick review of the debate we have heard before. Paul claims Abraham as the father of all who trust, live, love, hope, believe in the promises of God. By faith we enter into a living and vital relationship with God and in that faith relationship we share in the fruits of the spirit and the joys of the Kingdom of God. Justification by faith and not by works.
That is the old debate and there is still value in talking about this great divide between Law and grace, between faith and works, between convictions and attitudes and deeds. Yet even as we still affirm the central conviction that we are redeemed by grace through faith and not by works, we are living more and more in a community and a culture that has accepted the opposite position.
It is justification by the law, by deeds, by actions that really seems to be the operating principle in our culture. There is the exalted vision of the individual and the individual’s rights and freedoms, so we have some notion that every one has a right to think, to believe, to feel about things the way they want to, and they can do that as long as they don’t do anything to harm the other person. We keep being told that we can’t teach values, we can’t legislate morality, we can’t control opinions and attitudes, so we have become a society which is justified by deeds.
How does one enter into a right relationship with society and neighbors? Not by grace and promise and faith and trust, but by obedience to the law. By our works, by our actions. And yet to love God and to love neighbors as one self are supposed to be linked forever together.
If our relationship with God is to be based on faith in the promises of God which have been given by grace, and in that relationship we are to find our lives enriched and blessed and how we live and act will flow out of that relationship, then we ought not be surprised that we now are out of step with our culture. Our society is living on the basis of justification by deeds and actions — on the understanding of life that Paul’s opponents had. We are in fact discovering that the law and the rules are just producing more and more effort to make more and more laws, the laws are just making more and more criminals, and the more laws and the more criminals, the more wrath, anger, rage, and frustration is being generated.
We are brought into a dynamic and vital relationship with God and it affects all of our powers and choices and decisions, our hopes, our fears, our expectations for the future, the dreams we have, the monsters we hide from and the challenges we rise to. Faith is throwing one’s whole self and total person into a relationship of trust and love with God. Certainly that directs the actions of our feet and hands, but deeds are not the measure of our relationship.
We live in the midst of a community that is more and more trying to live on the basis of a justification by works, by law. But the life of faith is always a hope against hope, a trusting in a God-given hope when our human hope is gone. A God-given hope of resurrection, when our human hopes have been crucified. (Rick Brand)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: John A. Huffman, Minister, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA; Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; N. Allan Moseley, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Durham, NC; Gary D. Stratman, Pastor, First & Calvary Presbyterian Church, Springfield, MO; Richard Anderson, Pastor, St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church, San Jose, CA; Rick Brand, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC; and Michael Duduit, editor, Preaching.

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