Sunday, April 18, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-7
John 16:12-22

I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, 'Behold, God's dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.'

I think it is a good idea to be good stewards of the world which God has given to us. After all, He gave human beings dominion not to waste and destroy but to make use of His gifts in a way that glorifies Him. I'm certainly not perfect, but I try to use my resources in a way that is not wasteful but also meets the needs of my family and neighbors. We recycled when it was not convenient and we keep our house a little warmer than we'd like in summer and a little cooler than we'd like in winter. We don't litter and we support causes that protect nature and animals.

I love Matthew McConaughey's line in one of the Lincoln commercials, "It's not about hugging trees; it's not about being wasteful either. You've just got to find that balance where taking care of yourself takes care of more than just yourself." Being a good steward is about finding that balance.

I think, in many ways, Earth Day is a good thing. In the 32 years since the first Earth Day, many people have become aware of the ways we have been wasting God's creation and destroying it. Laws have been enacted that help, but there's also something to be said about the technological advances that have come from our knowledge. People don't want pollution, so the automobile industry has created better cars. We don't want to fill landfills, so entrepreneurs have found ways to reuse our garbage. We don't want to destroy the forests, so people are planting trees. There are more trees in America today than there were a hundred years ago. While those forests are younger than those before we foolishly overharvested, but in the past sixty years the forests are showing signs of renewal. "Mother Nature" is miraculously self-healing, and when we are good stewards, we find that our resources are better for our use.

One of the problems with Earth Day, from the very beginning, is that the most extreme advocates hold the Earth in greater esteem than human beings. Some have even suggested that it would be better if all humanity were wiped off the face of the earth. Their faith is pantheism and their god is the Earth. Pantheism is the belief that god is everything and everything is god. They do not believe in a personal, transcendent God. Though we believe that God transcends everything, the pantheists limit God to the Universe. We also believe that God is a person -like entity that has a will and can act in and upon the universe. The pantheists do not believe this, but rather is a non-personal divinity this is found in everything that exits. This 'god' unifies everything.

Unfortunately, the heresy of pantheism is finding its way into modern Christian thought. It is heretical because it limits God and makes the work of Jesus Christ unnecessary. If I am part of the cosmos, part of this unity, part of god, then I have no need to be saved by God. In an effort to reject dogma and the seemingly corrupt institutions that have been called "church" for so long, many people are finding comfort in the idea that God is all around us, in us, with us, etc. There is biblical precedent for these ideas. However, it is a fine line between God dwelling among us and us being god. Pantheism gives us the freedom to believe in the power of God while rejecting the attributes of God that we do not like. . "God is Love," makes us breathe a sigh of relief because a loving god does not make demands but instead loves us as we are. Sin is no longer a reality and if there is no sin there is no need for the cross.

Now, most Christians would never go that far with their ideology, but it is a fine line between orthodox Christian thought and modern New Age interpretation. There is no doubt that neo-Gnosticism has pervaded the modern church. Gnosticism parallels pantheism in some ways. I've also read articles that have shown examples of how some Christians, even pastors, are essentially atheists. Pantheism is not entirely atheistic, although they are close. One believes there is god while the other does not, but since pantheists believe all is god, then they agree with atheism's rejection of a higher power. If I am god, then there is nothing higher than me, right?

John writes in the Revelation, "Behold, God's dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them..." It is not very hard to stretch this word. God, being Spirit, is everywhere. The difference is found in the rest of the statement, "...and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." There is a distinction between God and His people. He is a higher power. He is the Creator, not the created. He has breathed life into us and given us His Spirit, but we are not god or gods. We are part of His Kingdom, but we will never be the King.

There is another distinction that has been lost in modern thought, and that is the distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian. Again, our texts can be stretched, leading some to believe in the idea of Universalism. Peter had a vision in which God showed him that He could save anyone He pleased. "What God has cleansed, donít you call unclean." Peter went to Joppa and witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon a community of Gentile believers. When questioned about his disobedience to God's Law, Peter answered, "I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?"

Some within the early church believed that they only way someone outside the Jewish faith could become part of "The Way" was to first convert to Judaism. They believed that it was necessary for proselytes to be circumcised. Peter was disobedient because he ate with people that they believed were unclean, ignoring their ritualistic laws. Peter knew that when God sent him to Joppa that something had changed. He told his story and the others realized that God really is for all people. "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life!" they exclaimed.

Here's where it has been twisted: some have suggested that God has saved all people. They say that since God's grace has been given to all people, then we can count all people as having received that grace. Since all gods are the same and since there is only one God, then anyone who believes in any god must also believe in God. If they believe, then they are saved. It is true that our God is the God of the whole world. He is our Creator and Redeemer. He has done this for all people. However, not all people believe in the One God, but n their own idea of God. They choose to follow their own interpretations. They choose to believe what they want to believe. They choose to go their own way. God is their God, but they've rejected Him by choosing another god.

Here's where we run into the problem that the early church faced: what is orthodox? How do we know what is right? What are the rules for becoming part of God's Kingdom? We look back on those early Jewish Christians and think they were foolish for demanding the ritualistic practices to continue; we don't need those laws anymore, right? We have Jesus. But look at your own congregation. What rules have been established there? Are there any that would bring a vision from God like the one given to Peter? Who are the "unclean"? I struggle with the answer to that question myself.

While it seems like the Church is dealing with greater issues today than ever before, the heresies and unorthodox interpretations have existed all along. We look at the world around us and cry out in pain that God is being rejected in the little as well as the big things, that scripture is being twisted to suit self-serving, self-centered ideologies, we aren't the first and we won't be the last. The Church will always struggle with understanding what God meant. We will feel discouraged and disappointed when it seems like God has failed. Of course, the world will rejoice around us, point fingers and laugh because it will seem as though our faith is foolish.

There was some truth to the way those early Jewish Christians believed. After all, God did choose them to be special and separate from the world. It is no wonder that they required the converts to do what was necessary to be part of the Church. Peter did not disagree until he had the vision from God. It was only after Peter saw the Holy Spirit at work in the community of Gentile believers that he realized that God was doing something new. Though it is hard to tell the timing, it seems that afterward, Peter had some disagreement with Paul over this very issue. If they couldn't get it perfect, how can we expect to do so?

We shouldnít consider ourselves any better than those disciples. We might see more clearly than they did in the beginning, but we still suffer from the same human imperfections. We still see things darkly. We still see things through our own human frailty.

Think how hard it must have been for the first disciples. Imagine their grief after Good Friday! After all, Jesus was going to do great things. He was going to lead Israel into a new golden age. He was going to defeat Rome. He was going to make them a strong nation. And then He died. He was cut off from the world before He could accomplish everything they hoped He would accomplish.

It couldnít have helped to have Jesus speaking so cryptically the words in today's Gospel lesson. "I have yet many things to tell you, but you canít bear them now," He said in the hours leading to the cross. The disciples had been with Jesus for about three years; they had experienced things that we can't imagine. They heard the scripture preached from the One who knows it better than any human being. They were mature in their faith; they trusted and loved Jesus in a way we might never experience. Yes, we know that they failed miserably at the end, but not because they didnít have faith. They failed because they had so much faith. Unfortunately, it was faith in all the wrong things.

Jesus knew that they needed something more. He knew that we would need something more. We can't make sense of all these things without His help. We need the Holy Spirit. Jesus could not explain everything to them because some things only really make sense when the Spirit of God explains it to us in our hearts. We must beware because it is easy for us to be deceived into believing that everything we think with our heart is true. I am sure that those who believe all the things I've written above believe so with their hearts. That's why God has given us both His Word and His Spirit so that we will know what has been revealed and understand by His grace. Jesus had more to tell them, but it would never make sense without God's Spirit. Where would we be without that same Spirit? It was only after they were given the Spirit that they could truly get to work, and the same is true for us.

That's what makes us different from those who do not believe: we have God's Spirit

We don't know everything. We simply do not know what God has in mind for our neighbor. We may think we can judge the book by its cover, judging by a person's outward appearance what they think and feel and expect. Even more so, we cannot tell by what we see today how God will impact their lives. And since we have been called to be God's witnesses in the world, we might just be surprised to which neighbor God wants us to take the Gospel.

If we accept that everything everyone feels about God is true, that God is whatever we want Him to be, that there is no sin because everything is good as it is, then we will not bother to share the Good News with our neighbors. Who are we to suggest that they do not have faith in God? It is all the same, isn't it?

God cares about all His creation: every bug, fish, bird, animal and even every human being. Human beings might be the only creature that creates buildings in which to worship God, but we are just a small part of the creation that does so. The sun, the moon and the stars all praise God. The heavens and the raindrops glorify God; the earth and all that lives on land and in sea sing His praises. The elements, the mountains, the hills and all the trees praise God. Wild and domesticated animals, clean and unclean and birds of the sky all join in the worship. No man is greater than all this, whether ruler or servant, young or old, male or female. All creation was made by God and all creation sings His praise. We may not be able to see it in the way the birds fly or cats sleep, but they are thankful to God and worship Him.

The same is true of our neighbor. This is not to say that every human being has benefitted from the saving grace of Jesus Christ, or even that all our neighbors believe in the God of our faith. However, we are reminded by our scriptures for today that we cannot judge our neighbors' faith by what we expect. That neighbor whom you think cannot possibly know God might just be the very person to whom you are being sent to share the Gospel message. The atheist that is unwavering in their lack of faith could be the next one upon whom God's Spirit will fall. We might just be surprised; we might just realize that there are no limits to God's grace.

The psalmist says, ďHe has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near to him." I suppose it is easy to assume from passages like this that salvation is meant only for a few. And yet the rest of the psalm tells us that even the sea monsters praise God. Perhaps someone who sees the world differently than we can too?

Peter had an amazing experience. God gave him a vision that he understood to mean that all food is good, and then he was taken to Cornelius' house. There he saw that even the non-Jews can believe and that God can bless them. The believers in Jerusalem were shocked when they received word that Peter had entered a Gentile's house and even ate with them. When he went back, he was criticized for it. So, he told them the story, sharing God's vision and his experience. When they heard the story, they realized, like Peter, that God can give even the Gentiles faith.

Throughout the history of the Jews, it seemed that He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle, inaccessible to anyone but the priests. No matter what they thought, God was not hidden behind the curtain in the temple. He was still working amongst His people, making them to be a unique nation among the nations, a people through whom the world would see the True and Living God. In this, God gave Israel the Law. He made circumcision a sign of the covenant between them. He made His grace visible in their lives, in His judgment and in His mercy. They were made to glorify Him. Israel's enemies saw that God dwelt among them. When He removed His hand, Israel fell, but He always turned back to restore her to Him. Through it all, Israel's unique relationship with God made Him visible to the world.

Jesus extended the grace beyond the bounds of the relationship with Israel to touch the whole world. God was not trapped in the Holy of Holies, available only to those who came to the temple. He came to dwell among His people and then filled those who believe with His Spirit. The Holy Spirit now fills our lives, teaches us everything we need to know and guides us into the life God always intended for us to live.

God has done something new, but it isnít really all that new. It is as He always intended. The psalmist shows us that the entire creation sings His praise. In Revelation we see all Godís people, no matter who they are, joining in the eternal worship of the One who did it all. Death and tears may have entered the world, but God has overcome death and will wipe away all our tears. One day we will all join in the praise of the whole creation and all the Church for eternity, dwelling once again with the God who created us, loves us and saves those who hear His voice and believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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