Sunday, April 29, 2012

Four Easter:
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

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.

I found an article today about text donations. It began with the example of the effort made following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A non-profit company set up a relief effort using mobile devices and within hours the incredible sum of $170,000 was collected. At $10.00 a shot, that is a lot of people texting their compassion. Within days the amount was nearly $8 million and after a few months they’d collected a staggering sum of $50 million. mGive has made it very easy for people to be generous; it only takes typing in a few numbers and someone is helped.

Now, some would say that this makes charitable giving disjointed and impersonal. Perhaps there is truth to that, but let’s look at it another way. How many of us woke up on January 12, 2010 and wondered what we could do. Most of us did not have the freedom to go to Haiti, particularly when the need was so fresh, immediate and desperate. Over the years many people have gone to Haiti or they have given financially through other organizations, but at that moment millions responded with what they could. The moment they saw a need, they gave something to help.

I’m sure we can all remember times when the immediate needs of someone in need are met by the immediate response of someone willing to help. Anyone who has dealt with a death in the family can attest to the giving nature of neighbors who offer food and a comforting shoulder. Victims of fire can tell how neighbors collect clothes and furniture so that they can start over. Pictures from the scene of a tornado show complete strangers pitching in to remove debris and search for remnants of lives destroyed by a few seconds of wind.

These are natural responses to the pain and tragedy we see in the world. If a friend is in trouble, we automatically help without thinking about it. If someone is sick, we may not know how to make them well, but we do try to provide some relief. If someone comes to our home, we ensure that they are comfortable. When faced with real need, we respond as we are able. Do we always do enough? When John asks, “But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?” is he measuring the amount of compassion by asking if we do enough?

In other words, should we be convicted because we did not rush to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake? If our response is not sacrificial, is it enough? We are all imperfect, and we can always do more, but that’s not the focus of this devotion.

When I read the words of John in today’s second lesson, I think about the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told the story of a man who was beaten almost to death. Several people passed the beaten man, leaving him to suffer on the side of the road. Only the Samaritan was willing to stop and help. Now, in that story we see someone who gave sacrificially. He gave more than was necessary. He gave above and beyond the typical response. He is a good example of what we can do to serve those in need.

But John writes, “But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?” He is focusing on those who refuse to help, like those who crossed to the other side of the road and ignored the problem. Think about the other characters in the story, like the innkeeper. Despite the Samaritan’s good intentions, what would have happened to the beaten man if the innkeeper did not take care of him? The innkeeper also responded to the man’s needs, but we don’t talk about the good work he did. Yes, the Samaritan gave him money to help, but he had to use his time and his hands to take care of the stranger.

Many really wonderful people dropped everything and went to Haiti to get their hands dirty, but would they have been able to do half as much if there hadn’t been millions of generous people texting those $10 gifts? Both have responded to the need as they were able, responding to the call from God to do love the neighbor in need.

God doesn’t measure our generosity, He looks to the heart. How do you respond when you see a neighbor in need? Do you cross the street and avoid that neighbor, or do you do something, no matter how small and insignificant it might seem? Do you ignore or respond? Those who have the love of Christ, who dwell in the heart of God, find some way to respond. As we grow and mature in our faith, we learn to do more than just that auto-response. We learn to go above and beyond, to be sacrificially generous to those in need. Most of us could grow more and learn to give more, but all Christians who love God have that innate sense of compassion because God dwells in us.

What is love? We think of love as an uncontrollable emotion; this type of love makes us act in selfish or self-centered ways. We might do something for someone else, to win their love or earn their affection. This is the type of love that causes us to do things expecting some reward.

The kind of love that we see in the life of Christ and in the grace of God is an “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.” This is the type of love God is calling us to live. We love because God first loved us, and our love is manifest through the ways we lay down our lives for others. As we dwell in the love of God, His love flows through us into the world. We love so that the grace of God will be manifested to others. The Shepherd cares for us so that we too will become shepherds and in doing so glorify God. That’s what Peter and John did for the beggar at the Temple in the chapter before our first lesson for today. They had nothing to gain from healing the crippled beggar.

As a matter of fact, they had everything to lose. They were arrested because they were teaching and preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His saving power. During the trial, the leaders asked, “By what power, or in what name, have ye done this?” Peter answered, “If we’ve been arrested because we kindly helped a cripple, then know this: it is Jesus’ name that healed the man.” Would they have arrested the disciples for healing someone?

The answer to the court’s question is that Jesus is the source of their power. But they did more than simply heal the cripple. They offered forgiveness of sins, the same blasphemous crime that Jesus committed. The Sanhedrin, especially the high priests, rejected the very premise that gave Jesus the authority to transform the world: His resurrection. That authority was the capstone of everything the disciples preached. Jesus is the only way to salvation. This proclamation took the power away from the Jewish leaders. This was really the ‘crime’ for which they had been arrested. The disciples’ teaching threatened their authority with the Jewish people. It was the same reason they destroyed Jesus.

But we are reminded again that though the leaders rejected Jesus and put Him to death, their actions were the catalyst for God’s saving work through Jesus. So, too, we see that the arrest, which seems so horrible, was a catalyst for Peter to glorify God.

Our response to the needs of the world will not always be accepted by the world. The world will claim that we haven’t done enough, or will question our motives. They will demand to know what authority we have to do what we do. It is unfortunate that many ministries are suffering at the hands of regulation. I’ve heard stories of people who respond to the hunger in their neighborhoods only to find their ministries closed due to ridiculous laws. Schools have been shut down because some parent has been offended and sued. Faith based hospitals are being forced to go against their conscience because someone claims they aren’t doing enough.

Despite the obstacles we face, God dwells within us and everything we do out of that deep and abiding love will be blessed. We may face rejection and even persecution, but God will be glorified when we respond with His heart. Whatever the world throws at us, we need only follow our heart. Of course, that can be a deceptive practice, particularly if we think of love as that uncontrollable emotion. Many people have followed their hearts into disaster because they were following in a selfish and self-centered way. We, as people of faith, follow God’s heart. That might just mean laying down our lives.

John writes, “Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” What does it mean to lay down our lives for another? For Jesus it meant literally laying down His life for His people. He went to the cross as the sacrificial lamb so that we will be saved. He died so that we would have life. We are called to die on the cross. Few of us will ever become a martyr for our faith. I suspect that few of us will even know someone sent to prison for speaking the Gospel. But we are called to lay down our lives for another. This means living humbly in the world, unselfishly meeting the needs of our neighbors. It means responding to the needs we see in whatever way we are able.

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.

We can’t love on our own. We are like sheep, chasing after the things we want rather than seeking the things that would be truly good for us. We think we can love, but in the end our love is shallow, built on all the wrong foundations. We try to control our circumstances, giving not as we are able but as we expect to receive a reward, unless we remember the source of true love. Real love comes from God and we love because He first loved us. As we dwell in that love, God’s love flows through us into the world. We love by responding naturally to the opportunities we receive so that the grace of God will be manifest to others.

The psalmist speaks like he is a sheep, and that is how we often experience the Twenty-third psalm. We are sheep and God is our shepherd. This is a life we could learn to love. It would be nice to have someone who will find me a bed of lush meadows in which to sleep or a quiet pool of water from which to drink. It would be so pleasant to have someone who will give me a chance to catch my breath and send me the way I should go. It would be comforting to have someone to walk by my side as I am faced with difficult times: the dark valleys of my life. As sheep we would have the security of the shepherd’s crook. He would feed us and revive us with anointing oils. Our cup would be overflowing with blessings.

However, God has not giving us faith to remain as sheep. He laid down His life and calls us to live like Him, laying down our own lives for others. We are called to be shepherds, partners with God in the saving work of grace. When we believe in Jesus’ name, we are given authority to share the healing power of Christ and the life found in Him. We are given the power to respond to the pain and tragedy we see. As we dwell in God’s heart, we will respond naturally with God’s grace to the needs of others as His love is poured out through our lives into the world. We can’t save the world, but God can save the world through those of us who believe in Jesus, so let us boldly proclaim His name in all that we do.

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