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“City of God”

Scripture Readings: John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:1-10, and Revelation 22:1-5.

Excerpt: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  – Revelation 21:1-4

(The sermon is preceded by the song The Golden City from the CD City of Gold, Phil Baggeley et al, Gold Records UK 1998. This album is a collection of songs and poems about heaven, and was very popular in the UK though never made it to the U.S. It is often particularly meaningful to people who have lost loved ones because it gives a vision of heaven and God’s future.)

When I was in school we had a professor who always used to say “Context is king!”  It became a catch-phrase among the students: What’s the difference between a nice meal at home and a nice meal at a restaurant? Context! What’s the difference between a vacation in the mountains or a vacation at the beach? Context!

The question of context is equally important when reading the Bible, and he taught us that as we read, we should ask the questions a reporter would ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

These questions become particularly challenging when we approach a book like Revelation.  Revelation is literally an apocalypse – a tale of the end of the world – and because of that it’s mystifying, and a bit scary in places. I don’t know about you but I can remember as a teenager having “heavy” conversations with friends about the book of Revelation and wondering what the end times would be like. Would we live to see them?  I don’t think any of us had actually read the book at that point, just a few passages that seemed to defy all logic. We used to try to figure out which country was represented by which beast: a bear? That’s got to be Russia! An eagle? That’s got to be the U.S.!

We couldn’t have known it back then, but we were way out of context.  The book of Revelation is not meant to be a road-map to the end times. Many people have mistaken it for that.  There have been many instances in history where people sold everything they had and went up a mountain to wait for Jesus to return, and it didn’t happen.  People thought they “miscalculated”.

The book of Revelation is not a timetable.  It’s a vision, and it’s a letter, written to the early church during a time of trouble.  And there are two kinds of trouble Revelation addresses: trouble from outside the church, and trouble from inside the church.

The opening chapters of Revelation deal with troubles inside the church. This is not our focus for today, but the messages to the early churches in the first few chapters contain words of encouragement and warning that are just as relevant today as they were then.  One of the most touching of these is Jesus’ challenge to the church at Ephesus:

“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.  Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love….” (Rev 2:2-4)

These words were written over 2000 years ago but they echo down through all of history to Christians in every time and every place, challenging us to stay loyal to our first love.

But our focus for today is on the last chapters of Revelation, and we need to back up and get some of that context our professor talked about.

The book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, possibly assisted by friends, while in exile on the island of Patmos. It was probably written around 65AD give or take a few years, 30 years or more after Jesus’ resurrection.  The generation after Jesus – the Christians born and raised roughly between the years 35-70AD – were raised in a church that was for the most part free of persecution.  What little persecution there was usually came from the temple authorities in Jerusalem, not from the Romans (with a few exceptions).  The church at that time was still centered in Jerusalem; it still had Jewish leaders (Peter, Paul, and James); and evangelism to that point had been relatively local. The church spread throughout Judea in the south of Israel and Galilee in the north, as well as areas like Gaza, Samaria, and the seaside towns of Joppa and Caesarea.

It was a time of rapid growth for the church.  But as the decade of the 60s drew to a close, political unrest began to grow in Israel and in the year 70 the unrest erupted into out-and-out rebellion against Rome that would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, most of which were burned to the ground.  Somewhere around this time the Romans – who till now had not paid much attention to this new group called ‘Christians’ – heard a rumor (started by the Jerusalem rebels) that Christians were responsible for the uprisings, and persecution began.

Jesus predicted all of this in Luke’s gospel. He had warned the disciples:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; […] they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24, edited)

So the Christians living in Jerusalem ran for their lives. (The refugees we hear about today are, sadly, not new in human history.)  As a result Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and churches were founded in countries that include modern-day Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

So the apostles started to write letters to keep in touch with the believers throughout the Empire.  Paul wrote to the churches he visited; Peter wrote letters (I & II Peter) intending them to be shared among the churches; and John wrote his Apocalypse.  All of these written to strengthen believers who were facing troubles from outside and inside the church.

I think it would be fair to say we also are now in a church that is under pressure from both the outside and the inside.  We may not face physical persecution here in the U.S., though there is persecution happening in other parts of the world.  But for us Americans, many of us remember the 1950s and 1960s when the church in the U.S. was widely accepted by society, and it takes us by surprise when we see church attendance falling and religion getting bad press in the media.  When we were kids everybody went to weekend services: our Jewish friends went to temple on Saturday, and everyone else went to church on Sunday. It was expected, it was part of everyday life… but not any more.

What we didn’t realize, those of us who grew up in those days, is: times like these, when the church is the “in” place to be, are actually relatively rare in human history. In the 1400s Martin Luther risked his life to reform the Catholic church back when mass was said in a language people didn’t understand. Congregations back then (when they attended church) had no idea what the priest was saying.  Roughly 100 years later, John Wycliffe of England risked his life to translate the Bible into English, and while he managed to avoid being killed, many of the people who helped him paid with their lives.  Two hundred years later, also in England, just before the Wesleys came on the scene, one historian writes England was “a moral quagmire and a spiritual cesspool” filled with gambling, public executions, and the slave trade.  John and Charles Wesley risked their careers to bring a revival of faith that changed English history – and American history as well.  The revival they started resulted in many people returning to God and the founding of hundreds of churches.

There was another revival 100 years later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more churches were built and church attendance went up again.  This revival was the one in which our South Hills Partnership churches were built, and its roots were very much in the foundation laid by the Wesleys a century before.

So throughout history church attendance has gone up and down, and the up-swings have been very much linked to times of revival. And as one internet pastor writes: “revivals emerge during times of spiritual and moral decline.”  This same pastor also points out that, while revivals are the work of the Holy Spirit and they improve both the church and society, they are also (in his word) “messy”: revivals spark controversy, and they invite spiritual excesses, and inspire disputes among theologians (which makes seminary really interesting!).  So good times in the church, times of stability and peace, are relatively rare in church history.

So where does Revelation come into all of this? Revelation is a message to a church that finds itself in tough times.  Which, looking out over church history, is most of the time.  Revelation shares a vision of the coming of a new heaven and new earth – and comfort and encouragement for those of us who are living on the old earth in the meantime. The point of Revelation’s visions of beasts and battles and angels and horsemen can be summed up this way: the time is coming when evil will be done away with.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, the light of the world, and the lover of our souls, wins in the end.

I think Jesus had these things in mind when he spoke the words we hear in John’s gospel today:

“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  […] If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:26-29)

Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will teach us the truth.  As we saw last week in the story of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit comes to those who hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and believe.  Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit is our advocate with God – the one who takes our part before the throne of grace, and the one who teaches us what God expects. The Holy Spirit never contradicts the teaching of Jesus; the Holy Spirit leads us to God’s truth, never away from it; and the Holy Spirit brings to mind words we need to say that we might never have thought of, and understanding we might never otherwise have grasped.

The Holy Spirit brings God’s peace in every situation – “not as the world gives” as Jesus says.  Does this mean we will never be upset by anything? No, of course not.  But it does mean that underneath it all we have a foundation of confidence that all things – including ourselves – are safe in God’s hands.

In John’s gospel Jesus says it is to our advantage for him to go to God the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come to us.

The Holy Spirit also gives in Revelation a word of warning to those who do not honor God. I actually like the old KJV translation here, the language is colorful: it describes evil people this way: “the fearful, and unbelieving, the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars”. The Spirit warns these will be subject to ‘the second death’ from which there will be no resurrection.

The ultimate source of all these sins is a lack of faith. Idolatry (which is on the list) is worshiping what is not God; and I believe this is the sin of our age – more than murder, more than terrorism, more than lying or cheating or stealing – because all these other sins are caused by people who desire something more than they desire God… who worship something more than they worship God. Even good things, like food and pleasure and relationships, if they become our masters, end up coming between us and God. They become idols.

So where does Revelation touch our daily lives? Primarily, it encourages us to keep on keeping the faith. And to avoid doing the evil things on that list from Revelation, and do the opposite: Do not be afraid. Do not be unfaithful; do not hate; do not murder but live at peace with others; don’t chase after cheap sex; resist the sin of sorcery, which is the temptation to play God; worship nothing but God; speak the truth.

To those who live God’s way, God promises:

“they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:4-5)

Why would anyone want to settle for anything less?

Shakespeare’s Henry V famously said, “the readiness is all”.  And nowhere is that more true than in the book of Revelation.  There is a new world coming and we want to be part of it. And we need to be ready. Hold on to that vision, and keep on keeping the faith.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/1/16

~

 

“Making All Things New”

Scripture Readings: Acts 11:1-18 and Revelation 21:1-6

Have you ever gone through the process of buying a house?  It can be a challenge, especially if you have a big family and everybody has their opinions.  Some family members like new homes, others like old houses with lots of character.  Some people like “move-in-ready” homes, others like “fixer-uppers”.  (I find it interesting that with most married couples there’s usually one person who’s the ‘move-in-ready’ type and one person who’s the ‘fixer-upper’ type… which makes for some lively conversations!)  And there can be advantages to all of these approaches to buying a home.

Our scripture readings for today are like house-building stories: the story from Acts is like a renovation on an old house, and the story from Revelation is like the building of a move-in-ready house.  But in both cases God is making all things new.  Let’s take a look.

In our reading from Acts, we see Peter defending himself to the apostles and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. And as often happens, our passage starts in mid-story so we need to back up and find out what’s happened so far.  What happened was – and what Peter is explaining – is that Peter had a vision one day, in which God said to him three times, “what God has made clean you must not call profane”.

Peter was still puzzling over this vision when three men came to the house, sent by a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  (Cornelius, being a centurion, was a commander of 100 soldiers.)  He was also a God-fearing man, that is, he believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Old Testament. And as a result he was good to the Jewish people. Even though the Romans had conquered Israel he did not take advantage of his position. The apostle Luke says he was “well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”.

Peter goes with the men to Cornelius’ house, where Cornelius tells Peter he saw an angel.  The angel told him to send for Peter and listen to the message he has to share.  So Cornelius gathered his family and all his friends, a house-full of people, and they listened to Peter talk about Jesus.  Peter told them about Jesus’ miracles, his healings, and his teaching of God’s word. He told them Jesus was crucified but rose from the dead three days later and was seen by many people.  And Peter said, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Cornelius and his family believed Peter’s message, and while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on them in power and they began to speak in tongues and praise God.  Seeing this, Peter realized (as he says) “Now I understand God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)  With God’s blessing Peter then baptizes Cornelius and all his family into the church.

What’s so extraordinary about this is that, up till this point, the vast majority Jesus’s followers were Jewish.  Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, he taught the Jewish faith, and the disciples were all Jewish.  And Jews and Gentiles didn’t associate with each other.  Jews did not eat with Gentiles or even go into their homes.  And now all of a sudden, Peter has not only gone into the home of a Gentile but has shared the gospel with him, baptized him, and then stayed with his family for a few days, which would have meant eating with him.  These things were not done in the Jewish faith!

~~~

Sidebar #1 – Was it God’s plan for Jews and Gentiles to be separate from each other like this? Not exactly. God does warn the Jewish people in the Old Testament (over and over) not to worship the gods of other nations.  And God warns the Israelites not to marry outside the faith otherwise God’s people might be tempted by their spouses to worship false gods.  But God did not choose the Jewish people so they could become an exclusive club.  God’s plan always was for God’s people to reach out with God’s word to all races and nations. God said to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) So Israel was supposed to be a sign that pointed people to God.

And sometimes they were – we see Gentiles in the Old Testament like Ruth and like Job coming to the faith.  But lots of the time they weren’t.  The religious leaders in particular turned inwards and made up all kinds of rules for people to follow like what you can eat and what you can’t eat, and what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath and so on. It was all about religious tradition and not about faith in God and outreach to the nations.

Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for exactly this. He said: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 23:13) He said things like: “you give 10% of all your mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters… justice and mercy and faith. […] blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matt 23:23-24)

So it always was God’s intention to include the Gentiles in the heavenly plan of salvation.  God got that message across to Peter by saying “what God has made clean you must not call profane”.

~~~

When Peter told all of this to the leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem, they were satisfied this was a message from God, and it ushered in a new covenant – the New Testament. Now, for the first time, all the obstacles were cleared away that prevented non-Jews from believing in the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What had concerned the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem was the question, ‘has Peter compromised the one true faith in the one true God?’ And their answer was ‘no’.  Because God had declared Cornelius and his family pure by Jewish standards even though they were Gentiles – and God gave them a sign to prove it: Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, just like the disciples did on the very first Pentecost.

~~~

Sidebar #2 – This particular passage in Acts is one of those hot-button proof-texts some people use to try to “prove” that people must speak in tongues in order to be Christian. The argument goes like this: all believers in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit (which is true); when Cornelius and his family believed in Jesus they received the Holy Spirit, and immediately spoke in tongues; and so did the disciples on Pentecost; so therefore all people who believe in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit must speak in tongues.

This is a mis-reading of the passage, and is as far off the meaning as those who claim the opposite (that the gifts of the Holy Spirit no longer exist). Both extremes are mistaken. The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people as God wills it, and this still happens today. There are no set rules as to who gets what gifts and when.  To learn more about the gifts of the Holy Spirit I recommend to your reading I Corinthians chapters 12 and 13 where the apostle Paul talks about the topic at length.

~~~

Sidebar #3 – This passage in Acts has also been used by some to teach universal salvation – that is, the idea that because Jesus died for the whole world, everyone in the world is going to be saved.  The passage says, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” – and this applies to all people everywhere – but the passage does not do away with free will.  All people are called to believe in Jesus Christ. All people are called to turn our lives over to the direction of the Holy Spirit. But not all people answer that call. God does not force salvation on anyone.

Look at what happened with Cornelius: God reached out to Cornelius – God took the lead – through a vision of an angel.  Cornelius believed what the angel said and did what the angel said to do. Cornelius could have said “whatever” and gone about his day. But Cornelius listened to the angel, and sent for Peter, and listened to Peter.  And when Peter said, “All the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” Cornelius believed – and that’s when the Holy Spirit came.

The Holy Spirit is not like ‘The Force’ in Star Wars that is in all things and through all things. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, God within us. It is impossible to know God – in any way – apart from faith. The apostle Paul writes: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)  The apostle James, Jesus’ brother, writes, “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26) To have faith is to change the direction of our lives, and not everybody does.

~~~

So, getting back to our original thought: God is making all things new.  In the story from Acts, God is adding on to the house that the family of God lives in.  Where there was once just the Jewish temple, now there’s a whole new Gentile wing on God’s mansion! Which was always part of the blueprint.

So now that this new creation is under way, there are four things I’d like us to see:

  1. There’s a new covenant. Jesus called it ‘the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for many’.  The old covenant was given through the law of Moses; and the new covenant is given through Jesus Christ.
  2. There’s a new temple. The old Jewish temple was destroyed when Jerusalem fell in the year 70AD and it was never rebuilt.  The new temple where God dwells is in God’s people through the Holy Spirit in each of us.  The apostle Paul writes: “do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (I Cor 6:19)  In very real terms this means whatever we do to our bodies, and/or whatever someone else does to our bodies, they do to God, because our bodies are God’s temple. And I point this out because in a congregation of this size, odds are good that at least one person here (probably more) has been subjected to physical violence or abuse of some kind in their lives. If so, be assured that God is not ‘out there somewhere watching from a distance’. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God is in you, walking through this life with you. A Christian is never alone.  (And if anyone you know has ever dished out violence – what they do, they do to God, and God will deal with those who mess with His temple.)  I could preach a whole sermon on this but not today. For now I’ll just say if anyone ever sees or hears about any kind of abuse happening, let one of your pastors know. We’re here for you. There is no place for abuse or violence in the family of God.
  3. Since we have a new temple – our bodies – we now have new sacrifices. In the old temple they sacrificed animals.  In the new temple, our sacrifice is “praise and thanksgiving”. That’s why we come to worship and sing songs and pray together. It’s why we celebrate communion together, and why minister to the community together. Our sacrifice is praise and thanksgiving.
  4. God has a new way of speaking to God’s people. The old order of priests and prophets as go-betweens between God and the people has passed away.  Yes, there are still priests and prophets, but the people of God don’t need an intermediary any more. Now we have the priesthood of all believers – direct contact between God and God’s people. We pray directly to God, and we have the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ – like we saw in the story of Cornelius – where God gives gifts to God’s people directly.

So these four things we have: new covenant, new temple, new sacrifices, and new ways of communicating with God.

And there’s a fifth ‘new thing’ still on the way, that hasn’t come yet. The apostle John talks about it in Revelation.  This isn’t going to be just a new wing on the house.  This is going to be a whole new house – a move-in-ready mansion! “A new heaven and a new earth” John says. The old earth and everything in it will pass away, and all will be made new.

It’s hard to imagine what that new heaven and new earth will be like.  The Bible tells us surprisingly little; but what it does say makes me want to be there!  We know God will be there.  God’s people will be there – all the people we’ve read about in the Bible, and all the people of faith who have gone before us, from all over the world in every time and place, and all the faithful who will come after us. There will be no evil people in this new place, no God-haters. There will be no death, no illness, no addictions, no injuries, no pain.

We won’t have to spend our days working at jobs that wear us down, or slog our way through office politics just in order to put food on the table.  These will all be things of the past.  Don’t get me wrong: I think there will be work to do in this new earth, but it will be work that is a pleasure.  I hope my work will involve taking care of cats!  And I’ve already put in my application for the Celestial Choir.

The apostle John tells us the new Jerusalem, the City of God, will be ‘adorned like a bride for her husband’.  It will be a city of brilliant colors and sunlight, with gates made of gemstones, and streets paved with gold.

And the best thing of all is ‘God himself will be with them, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ Can you imagine that? Every pain and every struggle we’ve gone through, not forgotten, but healed by the touch of God’s hand.

John writes, “the one… seated on the throne says, ‘See, I am making all things new […] these words are trustworthy and true.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

AMEN

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/24/16

 

 

 

 

Prayer request: The latest update from Bishop Grant LeMarquand and his wife Doctor Wendy who are ministering in Gambella, Ethiopia.

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An update from Bishop Grant & Doctor Wendy LeMarquand.

More Sorrow

As I drove through the town of Itang, little seemed amiss. Luke, our deacon in this area, asked me to stop. “We can walk from here,” he said. As I got out of the vehicle the smell of burnt wood struck me. A hundred feet or so past where we parked we came around a corner – nothing but charred wood and ashes – more than 200 homes gone in one night. Our Anglican church was still standing – perhaps the attackers here had a sense of the fear of God that led them to spare that one building. If only they knew that the people they attacked were made in God’s image and more precious to Him than any building.

2016 has been a difficult year for Gambella – and it is only April.

The refugee crisis

Two years of civil war in South Sudan has brought 300,000 refugees into Gambella, roughly doubling the population of the region. The increased population has resulted in many stresses on the resources of an already fragile social system. Water, electricity, internet service have all been in short supply. Although Gambella is not densely populated, access to arable land and to river water for the needs of agriculture, animals and humans is becoming more and more contested.

The Anuak-Nuer conflict

Perhaps the most important challenge, however, has been the change in the ethnic make up of the region. The Anuak, for generations the majority people group in Gambella, are now vastly outnumbered due to the influx of refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, almost all of whom are Nuer. Tension resulting from different views and uses of land has once more sparked conflict. The Anuak, as well as hunting and fishing, are more settled in the land, planting crops and having a sense of ownership of the land they till. The Nuer, are traditionally nomadic cattle herders who drive their cattle through all land; the land that they believe belongs to God and is therefore free for their use. 

At the end of January this tension became violent. The details of the fighting are vague and under-reported, but the short version is that a few dozen people were killed, many injured, and hundreds of homes burned and looted. Some of the Nuer and Anuak youth actually looted the villages of their own people who fled from fear of violence. The town and region are still filled with anxiety two months later. Nuer cannot safely travel into Anuak areas and Anuak are afraid to enter Nuer enclaves. The Federal Police and Army are seeking to keep order, but violence has flared up in several places.

Our church life has been deeply affected. Our theological students (five Nuer and five Anuak) must have classes in separate places for now. Travel to some places is too dangerous and many people are stranded away from home and are being cared for by church members and family. Some are running out of food or the ability to purchase more.

If these troubles weren’t devastating enough, bad turned to worse in mid-April.

The Murle attacks

Early on the morning of April 15th, large, heavily armed groups of Murle people crossed into Ethiopia from South Sudan. The Murle have had a long history of raiding the cattle of neighbouring ethnic groups, killing any who stand in their way (or happen to be in the wrong place) and kidnapping children who are then assimilated into their people. The reports were truly horrific. Young Murle men with automatic weapons killing indiscriminately in the areas of Lare, Jikwao and Nininyang – all places where we have Anglican churches.  The first reports said 140 Nuer people, mostly women and children, were dead. The death toll went up steadily – 160, 182. It is now being reported that 208 have died, at least 82 treated for bullet wounds in the Gambella hospital (others have been moved to hospitals in Metu and Jimma), as many as 108 women and children have been abducted. 

David Yao Yao, a former Murle politician turned cattle rider has denied responsibility. He did claim (truly enough) that the war in South Sudan (mostly between Dinka and Nuer, although this is an over-simplification) has so destabilized the eastern regions of South Sudan that the area is virtually lawless. It seems that it was only a matter of time before the chaos ensued. The Ethiopian government and the South Sudan government have said they will work together to track down the perpetrators of this brutality and rescue those abducted. We will see. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia declared two days of mourning.

The only good news is that the rains have started – it is harder to raid cattle in the rain, so this event might not be repeated (this year).

These overlapping tragedies of civil war and the massive influx of refugees, the ethnic violence over land between the Anuak and Nuer, and now these appalling Murle raids have left our people feeling raw and fearful.

Jewi camp 

Just a couple of days after the Murle attacks, a truck owned by an NGO and driven by a “highlander” drove into Jewi Refugee camp just a few miles outside of Gambella town. ‘Highlander’ is the name given to non-Gambellan Ethiopians – Amharas, Tigrayans, Oromos and others – who are lighter skinned and quite different culturally from those groups native to Gambella. The truck struck and killed two Nuer children. Enraged refugees, no doubt already tense and on edge, responded with vengeance killing at least nine (perhaps more, reports are conflicting) highlanders. Vengeance leads to vengeance. Highlanders in Gambella began a march to the camp to kill Nuer. A highlander mob tried to attack Newlands, the Nuer part of Gambella town. Many were praying. Thankfully, perhaps miraculously, highlander retaliation was turned back by the Ethiopian (highlander) army. Although cars were burned in the centre of town, blocking the roads, and gunfire was heard sporadically throughout the day (warning shots thankfully), fewer casualties than expected were reported. As of April 25th, Gambella remains in simmering, tangible fear and anger.

The Anglican situation

Information has been hard to obtain from the villages and refugee camps. The internet has functioned only part of the time. Quite a number of relatives of our church members were killed during the Anuak-Nuer clashes. Many members were looted or had their houses burned. We have so far learned that, during the Murle raids, three members of our Anglican congregation in Kowkow (near Lare) were killed and 1 child abducted. The sister of one of our clergy was also killed in another village and her child abducted. I have little doubt that we will hear similar details from other villages. Pray for our clergy and lay readers seeking to bring comfort to those who mourn and practical aid to many in need.

Thanks for asking

Many have been asking us, how they can help respond to the suffering in Gambella, and the needs of those who have lost loved ones, whose houses have been burned or looted, who need food, clothing and shelter. As one of our people told us, “There are many who are very suffering”. Some have been directly hit, others have been stranded without means for food, unable to return to their home area. The simplest and quickest way to help would be through a donation to our ‘Samaritan Fund’. See below for donation links, but please specify that the gift is to be given to “Ethiopia – Samaritan Fund”.

For those wishing to make a contribution in response to this crisis, please click on this link for “The Friends of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt”:
http://www.friendsanglicandioceseegypt.org/contribute.html
Funds can be donated online or by cheque. Please specify:
Ethiopia – Samaritan Fund.

~~~~~~~~Sidebar~~~~~~~~

There is a wonderful African saying, “I am because We are”. Identity is known in relationship; in belonging to your community.
This can be unfortunate in places that have a tradition in which baby boys are blood covenanted at birth to the revenge
of their grandfather’s enemies. The revenge of family and community can be a part  of identity. It is very hard, especially for a young man, to say, “No. I will not join in the fighting”.
Now our churches have a saying “One Lord, one family, one blood”. The blood of Jesus speaks a stronger word, than the blood of Abel; the blood that cries out for revenge. Heb 12:25

~ Please Pray with us ~

Please pray for Peace in Gambella and in South Sudan

~
Pray for a functioning government in the eastern regions of South Sudan. 

~
Pray for evangelists to reach out to the Murle people so that their society can be transformed by the saving and healing love of Christ.

~

Pray for comfort for those who mourn and for wisdom for those bringing comfort.
~

Pray for an end to the culture of vengeance.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you would like to share in our work,
see the following charitable donation links:
 

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Grant LeMarquand and Dr. Wendy LeMarquand
are missionaries of SAMS (Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders).
Bishop Grant is area bishop for the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Eretrea, Djibouti); under the Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

 

Copyright © 2016 Bishop Grant and Doctor Wendy, All rights reserved.
You are receiving this e-mail if you requested or signed up
Our mailing address is:Bishop Grant and Doctor Wendy

c/o SAMS

PO Box 399

Ambridge, PA 15003

 

“Tell Us Plainly”

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” – Acts 9:36-43

“At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.” – John 10:22-30

~~~

For the last couple of weeks at the other churches I have been preaching sort of a mini-series of sermons – I didn’t plan it that way, it just kind of happened because that’s how the scripture readings fell – and this week’s scripture readings follow nicely on that series. So bear with me and I’ll fill you in on the highlights.

Over the past month or so, our scripture readings have included Jesus’ death and resurrection, Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (a kind of death-to-the-old-life, birth-to-a-new-life kind of experience), and the story of Jesus confronting Peter after his resurrection about Peter’s denying Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, asking Peter ‘do you love me?’ and offering Peter forgiveness and a second chance. So for the past few weeks it’s all been about dying to the old and living to the new.

And in these stories the same themes keep cropping up: (1) Jesus is alive; (2) Jesus is Lord; and (3) Jesus is calling. Specifically, Jesus is calling people to repentance – an old-fashioned word meaning to ‘change course’ or ‘change direction’.  We see this change of direction in Saul’s life after his conversion, and in Peter’s life after he is forgiven.  I’ll going to get back to these three points, but for now let’s get to today’s scriptures.

We have two readings for today: I’ll start with the reading from John and use the reading from Acts to help bring out the meaning in John.

John writes: “The time came for the Festival of Dedication…” – which is an old-fashioned name for Hanukkah.  So it’s winter-time.  Jerusalem doesn’t get the kind of blizzards we get during the winter, but it was probably cold and windy and a bit damp.

And John says, “Jesus was walking in the temple in the Portico of Solomon”.  The portico was like a covered hallway with pillars holding up the roof… if you think of the Harry Potter movies, some of the school hallways that have open windows on one or both sides, it’s that kind of thing. It would offer some protection from the elements (though not from the cold) and it gave covered space to move around in and often to sit in.

As Jesus and the disciples are walking through, all of a sudden Jesus finds himself surrounded by the Jewish religious leaders. John says, “the Jews gathered around him”. When John talks about ‘the Jews’ he means the Jewish religious leaders who opposed Jesus.  This group might have included the high priest, the temple priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, any or all of the above.  John is not being anti-Semitic when he says ‘Jews’ – John was Jewish himself, so was Jesus and so were all the disciples. So it would not be right to read this passage as anti-Jewish – in fact what it really shows is how much the leaders of the Jewish nation had become alienated from the people they were leading. (Sound familiar?)

And the leaders say to Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  And Jesus answers, “I have told you, and you don’t believe.”

…which is kind of an odd statement.  There’s no place in the Bible where Jesus stands up in front of the religious leaders and says, “I am the Messiah!”  The only time Jesus actually says he’s the Messiah is when he’s talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, (John 4:25-26) but none of the Jewish leaders witnessed this.  There’s one other passage when Peter says Jesus is the Messiah (Matt 16), and Jesus answers “My Father in heaven has revealed this to you” but he tells his disciples not to tell anyone.

So how did the religious leaders hear that Jesus was the Messiah? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. They had John the Baptist’s testimony. “…I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” (John 3:28) John made it clear he was preparing the way for the Messiah.
  2. They knew Jesus had healed a paralyzed man. We know they knew this because they confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath.  Now here’s a man who hadn’t walked in 38 years, suddenly healed – which should have been an indicator that something out of the ordinary was going on –  and all they cared about was ‘it was Saturday’?
    • Jesus answered saying, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46-47) Jesus brings up Moses because Moses is the one who wrote about the Sabbath – it’s part of the Ten Commandments. But Moses also wrote about the Messiah, and they missed it! And Jesus is saying if they really believed Moses, they would believe Jesus too.
  3. They knew Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth.
    • This action divided the Pharisees, because healing the blind was considered the greatest of miracles. John tells us, “Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.” (John 9:16)
  4. They knew Jesus had raised the daughter of a synagogue ruler from the dead. (Matthew 9:25) Jesus told people who witnessed the miracle not to repeat the story… but word got around anyway.

So even if you set aside all the claims Jesus made – like ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ – even if you set aside all that, there are still the miracles.  Who else but the Messiah could give sight to the blind or bring life to the dead?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s turn to our lesson from Acts.

In this reading we meet a disciple named Tabitha who lived in Joppa, which was a seaside town near modern-day Tel Aviv. Tabitha’s name means ‘gazelle’ – a creature of grace and beauty. She was one of the first Christians, and Luke says her life overflowed with goodness and acts of mercy. She made clothing for people in need, and she gave generously to the poor.  When she died suddenly the whole community grieved.

The people heard Peter was staying in a nearby town so they sent men to go get him, and Peter came. He heard everyone weeping, and they showed him all the things Tabitha had made for the poor, and they told him all about her. Peter was obviously moved by all of this.  And they showed him Tabitha’s body. When they did, Peter sent them out, and got down on his knees and prayed.  And then he looked at Tabitha’s body and said, “get up!” And she did! Can you imagine the rejoicing as Peter presented Tabitha to her friends alive?

Luke says the news of this miracle spread throughout Joppa, and many people believed in Jesus because of it. We can imagine how fast the news spread! Can you imagine if something like that happened in Carnegie? How fast would news spread, and how far would it go? “Story at 11” right?

But notice the people of Joppa did not put their faith in Peter.  They put their faith in Jesus.  They knew Jesus was the source of resurrection power. There was no question in their minds. They knew: Jesus is alive.  Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is calling. They got it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So how is it, with so much more evidence, eyewitness observations, and direct quotations, the Jewish religious leaders missed the message?

Jesus was right: he had told them. They just didn’t believe.

It’s always been a mystery to me how educated, intelligent men – religious scholars who spent their lives studying God’s word – saw the miracles Jesus performed and heard Jesus teaching the Word of God with absolute accuracy – how could they not know the Son of God when they looked him in the eye? (I also notice it didn’t surprise Jesus.)

In our passage from John, Jesus gives a few reasons.

  1. They weren’t listening. Jesus had spoken plainly, and backed up his words with actions. They could look at a blind man who had been given his sight – but they called Jesus a blasphemer, the son of the devil. Their ears were closed and their eyes were closed. There comes a point where Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” (John 9:39) and the Pharisees immediately jumped on this, knowing he was talking about them.
  2. They were ignoring the evidence. Jesus said, “the works I do… bear witness… but you do not believe…”
  3. They didn’t follow Jesus. They were not interested in following Jesus. In fact they made fun of people who followed Jesus. They accused Jesus’ follwers of being easily deceived, or being under a curse.
  4. What’s worse… they tried to prevent other people following Jesus. Jesus talks about ‘the sheep of his hand’ – speaking of his people, his followers. The religious leaders didn’t want to be Jesus’ sheep, they wanted to have   More accurately, they wanted to steal sheep.  They were sheep rustlers, spiritually speaking. That’s why Jesus says ‘no one will take my sheep out of my hand’ and ‘no one has the power to seize my sheep out of the Father’s hand’.  Jesus is putting them on notice: their days of rustling God’s sheep are over. (And that’s ‘plain speaking’.)

And then Jesus gives it to them really straight. He says: “I and the Father are one.”

That’s where our scripture reading ended today. But in the very next verse the religious leaders pick up stones to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be one with God.

So what’s our takeaway from all this?

For starters, whatever the religious leaders did that day – do the opposite!

  1. They didn’t listen to God’s word, but we can.
  2. They didn’t believe the evidence of their own eyes, but we can.
    • For 2000 years of history there has been evidence – people willing to give up their lives for Jesus’ sake – either in service like Tabitha did, or in martyrdom like Peter did. People don’t give up their lives for a lie. Jesus is alive, and Jesus is Lord.
  3. They didn’t follow Jesus, but we can.
  4. They tried to steal God’s sheep for themselves. We can avoid that kind of evil. We are not called to get people to follow us or to join us.  Our job is to point people to Jesus.  Yes, we’d like to have more people in the church.  But our reason for being here is not to get more members. Our reason for being here is to be the family of Jesus here in Carnegie, pointing people to God.

Above all, and over all – we have can faith that Jesus speaks the truth when he says God’s sheep are safe in God’s hands. Nothing – no power, no authority – can steal us out of God’s hand. Take comfort in this, and take courage in it.

In this Easter season, remember the message: Jesus is alive! Jesus is Lord. Jesus is calling.  And we can share this message in confidence that nothing will ever steal us out of Jesus’ hands.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 4/17/16

~

Night Fishing

Readings: Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19

This week’s scriptures follow well on last week’s: we are still in Easter season, and the three scripture passages from last week highlighted the facts that Jesus is alive; Jesus is Lord; and Jesus is calling.  And Jesus’ call is to change direction, to turn towards Jesus and follow him.

This turning (which is what the word repent really means) is something that happens many times in our lives because we’re not perfect people.  We do our best; but many people still find themselves weighed down by feelings of guilt or remorse over things that have happened in the past.  It might be things we’ve done, it might be things we’ve failed to do, but guilt and regret that are not addressed – that get buried – can lead to feelings of sadness, worthlessness, depression, and sometimes addiction (which is an attempt to escape the bad feelings).

These things are not God’s will for our lives.  God does not call us to repentance because God wants us to feel bad – just the opposite! God knows when we bring the dark things in our lives into the light, they lose their power… because in the light they can be seen for what they are, and they can be forgiven and put away. God wants us to be free of guilt, and healthy and whole.

Today’s scripture readings tell the stories of two men who were confronted by Jesus about things that needed to be set right in their lives, and whose lives changed direction because of their time with Jesus.  I’m going to focus mostly on Peter’s story because I think it’s the one we can relate to the most, but I don’t want to miss out on Paul’s story.  (It’s too bad both scripture readings are assigned on the same day!)

In our reading from Acts we meet Saul (a/k/a Paul) who is a passionately religious Pharisee. He is tracking down and arresting Christians because he believes they are blaspheming against God, and he is on his way to Damascus to arrest the believers there and bring them back to Jerusalem to stand trial.

Damascus is at least a week’s walk from Jerusalem, which gives us some idea the lengths Saul was willing to go to, to track these Christians down.  Before he left on this journey Saul witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen, the first Christian to die for the faith.  Luke writes in Acts: “Saul was ravaging the church…” (Acts 8:3) and was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1)  So here’s a man who is a religious leader who is guilty of hatred, violence, and murder.

On the road to Damascus Saul comes face to face with Jesus. He hears the words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus, who you are persecuting” – and when he looks up he’s blind.  The people he’s traveling with lead him by the hand into Damascus where for the next three days Saul eats and drinks nothing.

Most of us can’t begin to imagine the horror and guilt that tore through Saul in those three days.  Later on in Acts, he relates some of the conversation he had with God – he said to God: “‘…I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and holding the coats of those who killed him.’  [But God] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 22:19-21 edited)

At the end of the three days a Christian named Ananias came and laid hands on Saul and prayed for him. Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, received his sight, and was baptized – before he even ate! He was that hungry for God. Saul immediately started teaching in the synagogues, preaching that Jesus is the Messiah and is alive.

So when Paul met Jesus his life totally changed direction. Where he had been persecuting the church, now he is growing the church, spreading the faith, and he himself becomes the object of persecution.  Paul will eventually die a martyr’s death, beheaded at the orders of that infamous Roman emperor, Nero.

~~~

Looking at Peter’s story in John’s gospel, unlike Paul, Peter had always been with Jesus. He was one of the first disciples, and he was the first of the disciples to realize Jesus was the Messiah. But on the night Jesus was arrested, out of fear of being tortured and killed, he denied knowing Jesus three times… and Jesus knew it. Peter never brought up the subject after Jesus’ resurrection, but it must have hung between them unspoken.

So our reading in John opens with the words “after these things” – which of course leads to the question “after what things?”  After the resurrection, after the disciples had seen Jesus alive least twice, and after Jesus told them to return to Galilee, saying he would meet them there.

So the disciples went to Galilee. John tells us at least seven disciples were present on this particular morning: Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James & John the sons of Zebedee, and two others. The Bible doesn’t say where the disciples were staying, but there’s a good chance it may have been with Peter’s relatives in Capernaum, which is right on the Sea of Galilee (John says ‘Tiberias’ in his gospel – the region has two names, it’s the same place).  I can imagine these guys sitting around, waiting for Jesus to turn up… and maybe they got bored, maybe they were still puzzling over the events of the past week… but at some point Peter felt the need to do something.  So he says, “I’m going fishing”.  And the others say, “we’ll join you.”

I imagine this must have felt very right to these guys, after all their adventures, to come home and climb into their fishing boats.  It would be like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings coming home to the Shire, or like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams asking his dad, “you wanna have a catch?” They’re home, with friends, doing something familiar and good.

Fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee

Fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee

John says they fished all night and caught nothing.  So around daybreak, tired and discouraged, they headed back to the shore.  In the distance they see someone on the beach, who calls out, “children, haven’t you caught anything?”  “No” they reply.  He says, “Try the right side of the boat, you’ll catch some.” And in a matter of moments they have more fish in their nets than they know what to do with.

John cries out, “it’s the Lord!” – and hearing this, Peter gets dressed and jumps overboard (not the first time Peter has climbed out of a boat to go meet Jesus!)  He swims to shore while the rest of the guys haul the fish in.

The Sea of Galilee

Pulling in to the Shore, Sea of Galilee

When they arrive they find Jesus with a campfire on the beach, and fish already grilling.  Where Jesus got these fish, we don’t know, but Jesus says, “bring some more fish over” And they do – stopping to count the fish first – they caught 153 fish according to John.  (Fish story? I don’t think so.)  It does bring to mind the feeding of the 5000, especially when Jesus pulls out some bread to go with the fish.

Imagine the scene: after a long night, to come home at sunrise and find breakfast cooking on the beach, and your best friend doing the cooking.  Have you ever shared a breakfast that was cooked outdoors – on the beach, or maybe over a campfire? There’s something special about it. It’s not the same as grilling out later in the day.  It’s an amazing way to start the day.  And in the disciples’ case, it was like: just a few moments ago everything was wrong with their world, and now everything is right. It’s a feeling of being exactly where you were created to be.

I wonder (just as an aside) if this scene might be a glimpse of what our arrival in heaven will be like? The Lord we love, and all the people we love, gathered around a campfire as our boat pulls into the shore? It’s a thought.

After breakfast Jesus pulls Peter aside and asks him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  And Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

The original Greek here reveals something we can’t translate directly into English.  Jesus asks “Simon, do you agape me?”  Agape is the Greek word for a love that is grounded in the will – in a decision – or like the love between a worshipper and God. It’s that kind of devotion.  Peter answers by saying “Yes Lord I philo you” – philo being a brotherly love, rooted in the emotions, in the heart. Peter acknowledges that his love is not quite as high and noble as Jesus asks, but he still loves Jesus.  And Jesus accepts his answer and says, “Feed my lambs.”

A little later Jesus asks Peter again, “Do you agape me?” and again Peter answers “yes Lord, you know I philo you”.  And Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.”

The third time Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you philo me?”  — and Peter is cut to the heart. He says, “Lord you know everything, you know I philo you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Three times, before the cross, Peter denied Jesus; and three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  Gently, and with great kindness, Jesus touches the place where Peter feels guilty and gives him the opportunity to set things right. Their friendship is restored; and Peter’s place in the ministry is restored. “Feed my sheep” – Jesus puts Peter back in his position of leadership, which is a place of service.

Jesus goes on to tell Peter what this will involve: “When you were young,” he says, “you fastened your belt and went where you wished. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.”  John comments, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.”

Peter’s life is no longer his own. And when his life comes to an end, he will be confronted again with what he feared most: torture and execution.  Only this time he’ll have the courage to face it. Peter ended up being crucified by Nero, and tradition says Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he felt ‘unworthy to die the way Jesus died’.

To some extent, what Jesus said to Peter is true for us too – because all of us, when we were young, went where we wanted to go and did what we wanted to do. But as we get older we face limitations, and eventually death, which is somewhere none of us wants to go.  In Jesus’ hands every aspect of our lives, every age we find ourselves, holds opportunities to glorify God and to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

So our takeaway from these two stories today:

  • Encouragement. We are in good company. Peter and Paul were human beings just like ourselves, with strengths and weaknesses.  They were not perfect. They were not super-human or super-holy. They both made mistakes – some of them pretty big ones. But God used them in powerful ways.  So God can and will forgive anything.  God loves people just like us… and gives people just like us a purpose and a calling.
  • We see in these readings healthy examples of repentance. In these stories we see two men whose lives changed direction. When Jesus faced them with the truth, they didn’t shy away.  And Jesus did not linger on their faults, asking them to feel all kinds of guilty (they already were feeling that way). Jesus offered them an opportunity to do something new, to change direction, to “follow me” as he said. And it was their joy to follow Jesus – free of sin, free of guilt – free to be of service to the Lord.
  • The initiative is God’s. It was Jesus who approached Saul on the road to Damascus. It was Jesus who approached Peter on the shore by the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus made the first move, and they responded.  Today and now, Jesus still makes the first move, calling us to a life of forgiveness and peace, joy and purpose, if we are willing lay our faults at the foot of His cross and follow Him.  So listen for His voice, and be ready. AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/10/16

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus Is…

Scripture readings: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

I missed out on the chance to say “Happy Easter” to you all last week, so: Happy Easter!  I hope everybody had a good holiday last week.

Today being the Sunday after Easter, it’s traditionally kind of quiet in the church, kind of like the Sunday after Christmas. But the Christmas season actually lasts for twelve days, and the Easter season technically lasts for fifty!  So the celebrations aren’t over yet.  Our scripture readings for today are still about Easter.  And Easter is the heart and soul of our faith.  We are a resurrection people.

I wanted to include all three scripture readings today because they reinforce each other, and taken together they point to three things about Jesus: three things that could start with the phrase “Jesus is…”

The first thing – which we already know, but it bears repeating – is “Jesus is… alive.”  Jesus’ resurrection is mentioned by Luke in our passage from Acts, and by John in the book of Revelation and also in the passage from John’s gospel for this morning.

I want to start with John’s words because John knew Jesus personally. Luke never met Jesus (Luke was friends with the disciples) but John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and ministry. John was there when Jesus blessed the children. He saw Jesus heal a man in synagogue, and he was there when the religious leaders confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath and Jesus answered, “which is better to do on the Sabbath: to kill or to heal?” John saw Jesus moved to tears at the death of Lazarus, and weeping over Jerusalem.

John loved being with Jesus. He was convinced Jesus was the Messiah – the main theme of his whole gospel is about Jesus being the Son of God. And he was devastated, along with the rest of the disciples, when Jesus was arrested and crucified. It was like the light had gone out of the world.

The disciples didn’t understand right away that Jesus had been in control of the whole situation.  In fact Jesus told the disciples he would be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 9:31-32), but they didn’t understand right away.

So John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and to Jesus’ death.  And he was an eyewitness to the events in our readings for today.  John tells us after Jesus’ death the disciples were hiding out from the authorities in a locked room of a house, when all of a sudden Jesus was there among them! How Jesus got into the locked room, scripture doesn’t say… it seems resurrection bodies can do some things our earthly bodies can’t. But there he was!

Imagine for a moment, what it would be like if one of our loved ones who has passed suddenly came back and walked into our house and started talking to us!  What a joy that would be, and how speechless we would be!  That’s how it was for the disciples.  They gathered around Jesus, hugging him, touching him, looking at his wounds (at his invitation: “Look at my hands, look at my feet.”)

And then as the group settled down a little, Jesus told them their mission wasn’t over. In fact it was just starting.  Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus didn’t send them out right away – he spent another forty days or so with the disciples, in Galilee, teaching them, answering their questions – but this was going to be a whole new beginning for their ministry.

Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15 that over 500 believers saw Jesus alive during his time in Galilee.  But the rest of the world didn’t know about Jesus’ resurrection yet.  But then Jesus returned to heaven, and it was time for the disciples to tell the world.

Not long after this the events in our passage from Acts took place.  According to Acts 5, when the disciples started teaching at the temple in Jerusalem, they soon found themselves in hot water with the temple authorities. What happened was this: the disciples got into the habit of meeting on the eastern porch of the temple every day, teaching the people and healing.  As a result of their ministry, more and more people became believers in Jesus.  People started bringing the sick and the demon-possessed from the towns and the countryside all around Jerusalem, and the disciples healed them all.

When the high priest and the Sadducees saw all this, and how many people the disciples were attracting, scripture says they were jealous.  (Mind you, the high priest and the Sadducees didn’t want to actually do what the disciples were doing.  They didn’t want to touch sick people, or teach the word of God to the people of God – they just wanted to have lots of followers, and the power and money that comes from having lots of followers… but I digress…)

So the high priest and the Sadducees, being jealous, had the disciples arrested and thrown in prison.  But an angel from God went to the prison, got the disciples out, and told them, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the words of this life.”  So they went.  They went up to the temple at daybreak and kept on teaching.  Later in the day when the high priest sent to have them brought to the council, the temple police went to the jail and found nobody there!  They found the disciples in the temple, teaching. And they were afraid because of the crowds, so they brought the disciples very gently and respectfully to the high priest and the council.

This is where our scripture reading for today picks up the story.  The high priest says to them, “we told you not to teach in this name, but you are filling Jerusalem with your teaching and you’re blaming us for Jesus’ death.”  But they answered “who should we obey, God or human authority? This Jesus, who you nailed to a cross, has been raised to life… and we are eyewitnesses….”

That’s the whole point of the story.  Jesus is alive, and there are lots of eyewitnesses!  Peter and the disciples are not trying to blame the high priest for Jesus’ death… they’re saying the plans they hatched didn’t work. The authorities killed Jesus but he didn’t stay dead! That’s good news… and the high priest and the council are trying to silence it.  So they had the disciples flogged and told them not to preach any more in Jesus’ name.

Not a chance that was going to happen.

The disciples went out and gave the same message to the people that they had given to the council, which was:  “God has exalted Jesus at His right hand as Lord and Saviour to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus is alive.  John says the same thing in the passage from Revelation, when he calls Jesus “the firstborn of the dead”.  (Rev 1:5)  And in John’s gospel, Jesus says to Thomas, “do not doubt but believe… and blessed are those who don’t see but yet believe.”

Jesus is… alive.

The second thing the disciples tells us in our readings is: Jesus is… Lord.

John says in Revelation 1:5:  “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness… ruler of the kings of the earth.”  In Acts 5, Peter says, “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Lord and savior…”  The disciple Thomas, when he sees Jesus alive, cries out “My Lord and my God!”

In our world someone who is a ‘lord’ is a ruler, or a commander.  And in this world we live in, authorities can be problematic.  But not so with our Lord Jesus.  Jesus once said to the disciples:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors’.  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”  (Luke 22:25-26)

As Jesus’ disciples, we are saved by a servant-king, and we are not motivated by fear, but by love and loyalty.  With joy we can say, “Jesus is Lord”.

The third thing the disciples tell us today is: Jesus is…  calling.

Jesus’ call is a call to repentance.  To repent means to have a change of heart, to turn to a new direction.  It includes admitting where we’ve been wrong, where we’ve made mistakes, confessing our sins to God and (when necessary) to each other.  But the aim of repentance and confession is not to put ourselves on a guilt trip.  The goal is forgiveness and restoration of relationships.

God calls us to change direction, to ‘do a 180’ as the kids would say. To turn away from the things that cause death, and move towards life, and the Source of life.  God’s call is a joyful call, to health and to wholeness and to eternal life with God.

To repent means to stop putting our faith in things that can’t save us, like money, or power, or politicians, or religious leaders for that matter.  Repentance means making Jesus #1 in our lives, and setting aside anything that gets in the way of that.

And ultimately Jesus’ call is a call to service.  John says in our passage from Revelation, [Jesus has] “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”  We are called into the service of the Almighty!

Whenever the Bible talks about serving God it kind of reminds me of British TV shows like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs – those grand houses with all the servants.  We Americans generally aren’t comfortable with the idea of being servants, but in England in those days the servants of a great house considered it an honor to serve a great family.  And the greater the family, the greater the honor.  Even today, if you or I were asked to be on staff at Buckingham Palace we would consider it an honor.  And before think our American way of life is all that different, which has more prestige: a job at the University of Pittsburgh, or a job at McDonalds?

To be a servant of the Most High God is the greatest honor there is.

As God’s servants, we are commissioned to take God’s message of love and repentance and redemption to people who desperately need to hear it.  To call others to faith, and forgiveness, and discipleship.  Jesus says, “as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

So Jesus is alive, Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is calling.

One last thing all three passages have in common: they all mention the Holy Spirit. We are not called to serve God in our own power – in fact we really can’t.  The business of heaven requires the power and the wisdom and the love of heaven.

Peter says in Acts, “we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”  When Jesus comes to the disciples, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is not religious language for something like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars.  It’s not a figure of speech – the Holy Spirit is a reality, as real as Jesus’ resurrection.  Whenever we set out to do what Jesus asks us to do, we need the Spirit to bring it to life.

We pray for the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate and guide, our teacher, the one who gives us gifts to use in ministry (which is another whole sermon for another day). But John and Luke mention the Holy Spirit for a reason… because the Spirit is a necessity.  And the Holy Spirit is ours because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So Jesus is alive.  Jesus is Lord.  And Jesus is calling us, and all people, to believe the good news: death is dead, we are forgiven, and heaven is open.  Believe, change direction, and follow Jesus. That’s his call, and that’s our message for the world. AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/3/16

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“It Is Finished”

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
John 19:30a

[T]he sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.  When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Luke 23:45-47

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Palm Sunday has always struck me as sort of an odd holiday.  In many churches it is celebrated by the children, or even the entire congregation, marching around the church carrying palms and singing songs.  But Palm Sunday is also a holiday that ends in darkness as we remember the plot to kill Jesus, and many churches remember this by covering the crosses in the church with black fabric at the end of the Palm Sunday service.

However we remember it, the events of Palm Sunday lead us directly to the cross.  And the cross is the focus of our Lenten series on the Seven Last Words.  But still… today is Palm Sunday and I don’t want to push that to the side.  So in memory of the day, I’d like to begin by reading the story as Matthew tells it.

As we read, imagine yourself in the crowd, and picture in your mind Jesus, and the disciples, and a donkey, and a crowd gathering on top of the hill overlooking Jerusalem. The hill you’re standing on is the Mount of Olives, and there’s a path that winds down the hill, across the Kidron Valley, and up to the Temple Mount.

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

                 Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

Here’s how Matthew describes the scene:

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet [Zechariah], saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Olive trees, Garden of Gethsemane, near Kidron

Olive trees, Garden of Gethsemane, near Kidron

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”  He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. (Matt 21:1-17)

If there was ever any doubt that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, Palm Sunday lays these doubts to rest.  First, Jesus rides in on “the foal of a donkey” as predicted by the prophet Zechariah. Second, the word “Hosanna!” means “save!” – a prayer that is rightly prayed only to God.  And third, the children call Jesus “Son of David” which is a name belonging only to the Messiah – and Jesus doesn’t correct them. In fact he encourages them.

No wonder the chief priests and scribes were ticked off!  Jesus was either the worst blasphemer that ever lived, or he really was the Messiah. There are no other possibilities. Their reaction reminds me of CS Lewis’s words when he said:

“I am trying to prevent anyone saying… ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ […] A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity, edited)

The chief priests and scribes understood that.  They knew if Jesus really was the Messiah, they were going to have to step down and let him step up, and they were not about to do that.  By their actions they showed they would rather be ruled by Romans than by God.

And as a result, five days later, Jesus was hanging on the cross.

Which brings us to our message for today.

The first thing Jesus speaks in today’s readings is “it is finished” – tetelestai in the original language, just one word – which means ‘completed’ or ‘accomplished’.  This is not spoken as a sigh of resignation.  Matthew tells us Jesus spoke his last words “with a loud voice” – a shout of victory!  It’s like the cry of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. It reminds me of Pastor Sue a few weeks ago running the marathon down in Disney World – tetelestai would have been an appropriate word for her at the finish line.  “I did it!” Accomplished!

The second phrase Jesus speaks is “into your hands I commend my spirit”. Jesus gives up his life and all that he is, into the Father’s hands, with certainty and with confidence.

Luke tells us at the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  This was a curtain that divided the sanctuary, where the people were, from the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was.  The only person who could enter the Holy of Holies was the high priest, once a year. For anyone else it would have meant death.  But now Jesus has entered into the Holy of Holies in heaven and opened the door for us, opened the curtain for us.  There is now no more division between God and God’s people… no more need of priests to go between the people and God. The power of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf opens to us the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God.

How is it that Jesus’ death makes this possible?  Theologians have been talking about that for a couple thousand years. One could say Jesus atoned for our sins; or Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins; or Jesus demonstrates of God’s love for us; or his death is a reversal of the events in the garden of Eden.  We can call Jesus Redeemer, Saviour, High Priest, Passover Lamb, Liberator, King… all of the above!  The point is, where we were broken, God has healed.  Where we have sinned, God has forgiven. Jesus’ death is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. It is the beginning of the final victory.

How then do we live in light of this victory?

Three simple things.

First, we believe. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, as he said.

Second, as we live our lives, we take Jesus’ life as our example and do our best to follow in his footsteps.  We read about his life, the things Jesus said and did, how he loved and gave of himself to others, and we make it our life’s goal, in prayer and in action, to become more like Jesus.

And third, when we are faced with death, we take Jesus’ example and place our loved ones and ourselves in God’s hands, using Jesus’ words, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” – with faith and with confidence.

Three simple things… that will take a lifetime to master.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 3/20/16

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