Sunday, April 26, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:1-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

They were afraid. They were so afraid that they were hiding in the Upper Room, wondering what they should do. Jesus appeared before them, taught them everything they needed to know and then ascended to heaven. He told them to wait because He would send a helper. They waited, prayed and though they had more confidence on seeing Jesus alive, the idea that they could continue His ministry was daunting and perhaps even frightening. How could they do it? What if they leaders came after them, too?

We are actually a few weeks from Pentecost in the Church year, so chronologically we have not seen the solution to their uncertainty and fear. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fill the disciples with the gifts and the courage to go out into the world to continue Jesus' ministry. They could not have done it without Him, and though they were sad that Jesus went to the Father, they could not have had Him in this way with Jesus still among them. The one man who held the power of God - Jesus - went to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to fill all believers with God's power.

Last week we heard the story of the beggar at the gate that Peter healed, and that story continues in today's first lesson. The people were amazed that Peter, with just a word, could raise the man into a new life. They wanted to know how he did it. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, had the courage to tell them that it was in Jesus' name. He told them how they missed the Messiah, how they missed seeing that Jesus was the One for whom they waited. He told them that it wasn't his power, but the power of God granted to believers because of Jesus. They denied Him, but the disciples saw everything Jesus did and they were witnesses. The frightened uncertain men from just a few weeks ago were now filled with bold confidence and were willing to tell Jesus' story.

This angered the leaders. I've been watching the NBC production on Sunday nights called "A.D. The Bible Continues," and while I have not agreed entirely with their interpretation of the text or the theology, I have found it interesting to see these stories played out in an accessible way. I have been disappointed that they've felt the need to insert conflict and violence, sneakiness and fanaticism even among the disciples. They are trying to 'sell' faith using modern media techniques while telling a story that shows us that faith can't be sold. Faith comes only by hearing His story and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Can this television show spark faith? Of course it can, even with the unnecessary additions to the story, because God can use the most unlikely people and things to accomplish His work in the world.

The story on Sunday showed the anger of the leaders at the things Peter was saying in the Temple. So far the program has shown the Romans dealing with the foolishness of the Christian claims, killing guards and filling Jerusalem with troops. The Jewish leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to quell the enthusiasm for Jesus of Nazareth, first by having Him crucified and then by chasing His followers. They knew that Roman oppression would not help their power or cause, and tried to appease them but putting a stop to the movement. It is no wonder that the early disciples might be afraid. They had every reason to be.

And yet, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they were willing to do and say what Jesus sent them to do and say. They were willing to take a chance, to speak the truth, to tell Jesus' story. They were willing to stand up to the world even though it was likely that their bold confidence would make them martyrs. It did for ten of the eleven. They humbled themselves for the truth and the truth truly set them free.

What is truth? This is a question we heard during Holy Week. It is the question Pilate asks of Jesus. Peter tells the truth in today's first lesson, "And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved." We live in a time when many people are asking, "What is truth?" even Christians. In an effort to be the humble, kind and merciful people we know God is calling us to be, we've turned faith in Jesus into something that is just one possible interpretation of God's love. We talk about mountains with many roads leading to the same place, a place where we will dwell with all people of faith no matter what they believe. There is no absolute truth; truth is subjective and personal.

From the beginning of this thing called Christianity we've heard what Peter says so clearly in today's lesson. Jesus said it, too. "I am the way." Salvation comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that somehow Christians are better than others. It also does not mean that the Christians you know today are the only ones who will spend eternity with the Father. But there is no doubt, from Jesus' own words and the witness of those first Christians: those who reject Jesus will not be saved. It is up to us to be bold witnesses to that truth, to tell the story so that they will hear and believe. We can't be wishy washy. We can't accept everyone's idea of truth and ignore the reality that Jesus is the only way to be saved. We can love, honor and respect all our neighbors no matter what they believe. But we are called to tell the story of Jesus to them all so that they will be saved.

This attitude is seen as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit, pride by those who do not believe. "You just think you are better than others," they say. So we concede and encourage our neighbors to follow their own truth. I agree that there are some wonderful aspects of other religions. Yes, there is grace and mercy, kindness and peace. Yes, there are people in every faith tradition who do good and wonderful things. It is even possible that God is working through those faith traditions in His own way. We are not meant to be arrogant, haughty, superior, conceited, or proud, but called and gifted to be loving, joyful, peaceful, longsuffering, kind, good, faithful, meek, and self-controlled. We are called to a humble life of sharing the story of Jesus Christ with bold confidence so that everyone will be saved.

Why bother sharing God's grace if they do not need Jesus? Christianity is not the best religion; there are other faith traditions that are far more satisfying. The possibility of martyrdom isn't very attractive, either. We'd rather believe what meets our needs or satisfies our desires. I once knew a woman who called herself an eclectic Christian. She picked and chose the parts of Christian faith she liked and the supplemented her religion with the bits and pieces of other religions that sounded good to her. She still called herself a Christian and believed in Jesus and yet He was nothing more than a friend, role model and great teacher. She didn't believe in sin or the need for forgiveness and salvation. The inconvenient parts of Jesus' story were interpreted to be spiritual rather than physical. The same ideas are being taught in too many churches today. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Peter and John knew that some day they would face inquiry from the Temple leaders. Jesus told them that they would be hated as he had been hated. They knew they would suffer the same persecution; perhaps even drink the cup that Christ drank. Yet, Peter faced the arrest and false trial with confidence. It wasn't his word or power that gave him hope; it was the knowledge that Jesus Christ was his Shepherd. Perhaps the comforting words of Psalm 23 were on his lips that night he spent in prison. He was walking through a valley, and did not know what would happen the next day. But he trusted in the One who did know, and who had prepared that table of goodness on which Peter could feast even in the presence of his enemies. He was happy, content. He knew God's lovingkindness surrounded him, despite the circumstances he had to face.

Psalm 23 is an appropriate psalm for today because the Gospel lesson is the Good Shepherd text from John. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John tells the story of Jesus in his Gospel in a way that makes it clear that Jesus is exactly what He claimed to be: God incarnate. The "I AM" statements parallel the understanding of God and the expectation of the Messiah. Jesus came to save the world, and He did so with His blood. That's why He is the only way for salvation.

John writes, [Jesus said,] "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep." In the days of Jesus, the shepherds took their sheep out into the country to eat the grasses. When they returned to town, they kept their sheep in a pen that was often an open roofed room with tall walls and just one door attached to a house. The shepherd paid rent to the homeowner, and the gatekeeper opened the door only for the shepherd. This is why Jesus talked about being the gate in the earlier verses of John 10. These pens were often shared by multiple shepherds, and when the gatekeeper opened the door for the shepherd, he called each of his sheep by name and they came to him because they knew his voice.

The shepherds did not always take their sheep into town, but it was not good to allow them to roam in the fields at night. The dangers were too great. So, there were sheep pens built out the fields; they were basically nothing but a stone wall high enough to keep the sheep in and the dangers out. There was no door, so the shepherd lay in the doorway to sleep so that any danger had to get past him to get at the sheep. This was dangerous because a hungry wolf can hurt or kill a man; the shepherd literally laid his life down for the sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who literally lay down His life for us. The thing that makes Jesus unique is that He was in control, from the beginning, through the cross and to the empty tomb.

The text from John 10 follows the story of the healing of the man born blind. That story led to a trial of Jesus, although it was really the leaders of the Jews who found themselves on trial. They were not being the shepherds of the people; they were doing what they needed to do to survive and remain in their power and position. They were not teaching the people about God; they were burdening the people with laws that were never intended by God to be burdensome. Jesus answered their accusations with the parables of the gate and the shepherd. They were the thieves who tried to steal the sheep and the hired hands unwilling to lay down their lives for God's people.

John continues this picture of the shepherd laying down his life in today's second lesson, but in it he calls us to live like Jesus, willingly laying down our lives for our brothers. That's what Peter and John did when they met the beggar at the gate. They didn't have silver or gold to give the man, but they had something better. Of course, healing the man guaranteed that their time of trial would begin because it would reveal them as followers of Jesus. There was no way for them to give the man what they had without others discovering it. They didn't worry about it. They healed the man in Jesus' name and then testified about the power they received from Him. It was bound to be a problem, and though this particular occasion did not martyr Peter, it was the first of many times that he would be tried. Peter was willing to lay down his life by giving that man the best thing he had: Jesus.

Are we willing? Do we trust that God is our Shepherd, that He will take care of us even unto death? If we believe that Jesus is the Savior, that by His blood we have been guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life, then the fears of this world should not matter. Here's the problem with the Christians of today calling Jesus just one of many ways: if truth is not absolute than we do not have to lay down our life for anything. Why risk death over faith in Jesus if any path will get us what we need?

The text from John's letter tells us to love so deeply that we are willing to give up everything for the sake of another. This includes our lives if that's what it takes to help them discover the source of life and eternal life. John repeats the statement we hear in Acts and expands upon it, "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment."

The world may see our bold confidence and unwavering faith as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit and pride, but faith in Christ is all about love. What is love? Love is not giving in to the desires of the world around us, diminishing Jesus to what we want Him to be and tolerating every expression of faith as being valid and acceptable. Love is standing firm on the truth and being willing to give up everything to tell the story of Jesus so that the world may be saved.

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