Sunday, April 24, 2005

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father.

Is Jesus inclusive or exclusive? This is a question that troubles many believers, especially in our world today where tolerance is demanded of all people no matter their creed. It would be hard to see Jesus, who welcomed sinners and tax collectors to His table, as anything but inclusive. Yet, it is also hard to juxtapose the words of today’s gospel lesson with that understanding. What does He mean when He says that He is the way, the truth and the life?

He does not say that He is one of the ways to God. He does not say that the path He took is the right way to get to heaven. He does not suggest that those who think or act as He does will inherit the kingdom of God. He says, “No one cometh unto the Father, but by me.” As we heard last week, Jesus is the gate that leads to eternal life. There is no other way.

Yet, this understanding has led to horrific behavior throughout the history of Christianity in the world. When Christianity holds the power, people have been forced to accept the faith through violence, coercion and intimidation. It is easy to see how modern Christians, who reject that way of evangelism, could want to make Jesus a more inclusive entity. We do not want anyone to miss out on the blessings of faith, so we reinterpret Jesus’ words in a way that will make everyone feel welcome in our fellowship no matter what they believe.

Unfortunately, this also means that there is no need for evangelism. If Jesus was simply saying that the way to God is to do as He does even unto death, then there are certainly many people in many other religions that are living that godly life. They can believe whatever they want as long as they follow the same path that Jesus taught. Almost all other religions have some doctrine involving Jesus Christ – as a prophet or teacher, holy man or trainer. They honor His work and give Him credit for changing the world.

People from every religion pray. They see miracles happen because of their faith. They find peace and joy in their worship. They have fellowship with other believers and they do good works for their neighbor. They live what seems to be a godly and righteous life. However, Jesus never said He was the way to a godly life. He said He was the way of salvation; He is the truth and the life. He is the bread, the living water, the light and the resurrection. Jesus was not just a holy prophet that did amazing things.

He did some amazing things. He raised the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons and forgave sins. These signs, according to John, were the evidence that Jesus was one with the Father. Again, it is easy for us to say that Jesus meant that He was one in thought or in purpose with God. But Jesus said, “Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.” The greatest sign of all was His death on the cross – when He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through the forgiveness of all our sin. This is the grace of God and it is found only in Jesus Christ, for no other religions offer reconciliation or forgiveness.

We don’t need more people doing good things in this world, though certainly there are still a great many people who need our compassionate works. What we need most in this world is reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet how many even think they need to be forgiven? Rather than seeking the justification of God, we justify our sins as if they are God-given rights or even personal expressions of our own lives. Even worse, we no longer recognize that sin is more than just the things we do wrong. It is the separation that was created between God and man in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word and chose to believe the serpent.

So, in today’s world we still ask the question, “Did God really say?” and we find ways to juxtapose our wants and desires along side God’s truth. And we wonder why we are not doing the greater things Jesus promised us in today’s Gospel lesson.

Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto the Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Did Jesus mean that we would do greater signs than He, like raise the dead and heal the sick? Certainly the apostles continued to do such signs in Jesus’ name as they took the Gospel to the world. There are those who would say that we are not doing these things because we do not have enough faith.

However, I would like to suggest that we aren’t doing the greater works because we are too lazy or afraid to take the Gospel message to the world. As we begin to accept all belief systems as valid ways to the Father, then there is no need to share the message of reconciliation and forgiveness that makes Christian faith unique. We’d rather not insult or offend others, so we keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. We do good works in the hopes that someone will see God in our actions, but we never say the words that bring salvation to the world.

I love the wise saying of St. Francis of Assisi which says, “Preach always, when necessary use words” for this teaches us that we should always be walking in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in everything that we do. Unfortunately, this has also been used as an excuse for our silence. We refuse to share our witness with others because we feel that it is enough to act. However, people are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. If we never speak that word, or if we keep it to ourselves because we are afraid, then they will never hear and believe.

Look at the life of Stephen. He was not one of the twelve apostles. He was chosen to be one of the helpers who would labor in the church so that the apostles could dedicate their time and energy to prayer and the preaching of the Gospel. Yet, Stephen did not remain silent while he waited on tables. The word he spoke brought him to his death as the first martyr for the faith. However, opposition arose against the Christians and they began to look for ways to stop the spread of the Gospel. They claimed Stephen was blaspheming God and Moses. They said, “This man ceaseth not to speak words against this holy place, and the law: for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered unto us.”

When asked by the Sanhedrin about his message, Stephen responded with a lengthy sermon about how Moses pointed toward the day when God’s promises would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They were furious, of course, and took him outside the city to stone him. He did not fear death or the consequences of his words, for he knew he was speaking the truth. As they were stoning him he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then he fell to his knees and said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” He asked for forgiveness for his enemies even while they were killing him. Even to his final breath, Stephen spoke the Gospel message.

Jesus’ grace is not exclusive, but there is a chasm much greater than we ourselves can ever cross. We try to do so with good works, following His example of kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor and do good things for the sake of the world. Yet, there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God; we have no assurance that we have done everything necessary.

We must trust in God, not ourselves, or we will be just like Adam and Eve in that Garden. As we continue to ask the question, “Did God really say?” we will find ourselves in the same position – outside the grace of God on our own path. It does not matter if the path appears to be one of goodness and righteousness. If Christ is not the foundation, then it is a path to nowhere.

The psalmist writes, “In thee, O Jehovah, do I take refuge; Let me never be put to shame: Deliver me in thy righteousness. Bow down thine ear unto me; deliver me speedily: Be thou to me a strong rock, A house of defence to save me. For thou art my rock and my fortress; Therefore for thy name's sake lead me and guide me.” Notice that it is in response to the grace of God that the psalmist seeks to follow rightly. We need something on which to build our hope and our faith. Jesus is the way.

There are those – many, some that are even found in the Christian church – who would like to think of Jesus as merely another chapter in the story of God. To them, Jesus need not be the only way to God, but rather an example of the path we are to take to know God. Yet, Peter identifies Jesus as the foundation of our faith. He is the chief cornerstone on which faith is built. Without Him, there is no foundation, no faith. He is, to those of other religious, a stumbling block. They know they need to speak on Him in their writings, but they have to reduce Him to less than He is so that their works of faith will seem to be enough.

Peter writes, “But ye are a elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” We have been called to be people of God, not just to serve the world, but to belong to God and declare His praises. That includes Jesus, for He is one with the Father.

Today’s Gospel lesson begins with the words, “Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.” We should not fear because of the Gospel. We should not be lazy or silent either. When Jesus talks about trusting God, He includes Himself. He is the one preparing a place and He will come to take us there. He is the way, the truth and the life. While we should never return to the days when faith was forced through violence, coercion and intimidation, we should not be silent. We might not be called to be apostles, but we are called to speak the word of God to the world. Stephen was not a preacher, but he preached while he served. So, too, we are called to preach while we serve, no matter what it is we are called to do in this world.

When we do so – preach the Word – we will do greater things than Jesus. We might display miraculous signs, but even more so we will bring forgiveness and reconciliation to the world in His name. Thanks be to God.

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