Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.

This Sunday, besides being the Sixth Sunday of Easter, is Mother’s Day. At my home church, it is also the day we will be confirming seven youth, including my son. This might seem like an unusual juxtaposition, but in reality there is no better way to honor a mother than to give her a chance to see her child’s faith in action. Years of prayer, teaching and commitment to religious education come to fruition on Confirmation Day, when the youth affirms his or her baptism and makes a public statement of belief in Jesus Christ. I was so pleased to see the scriptures for this week will enhance this experience for us all. As we send our youth into the world on a journey of more mature faith, God is giving them a message of His power and His presence in their lives.

For the past few weeks, our scriptures have focused on some of the more incredible aspects of the early days of the Church. Some of their experiences are somewhat hard for us to believe, not because we doubt God is capable of doing these things but because we have not personally experienced anything so extraordinary. They not only saw Jesus heal and raise the dead, but they themselves were given the power of God to do likewise. They not only spoke God’s words in a way that others could understand, but they did it for people who did not even speak their language. They had visions and felt the power of God as He led them to people and places to do His work.

I have often wondered, “How did they know?” How did they know it was real? I have had experiences that I was certain came from God, but when they were over I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be some physical explanation. This is especially true when things did not go as I expected them to go. Take, for example, those times when we have heard that “still, small voice” that seemed to be leading us to make a specific decision. Do we follow that voice or do we ignore it? We’ve heard too many stories of people who have claimed to have heard a voice telling them to do something out of the ordinary like kill their children. We know that God would not command such a thing – though He did do so with Abraham. We are more likely to believe someone who said God is sending them as a missionary to Africa, but even then we are cynical.

How did they know? In today’s story from Acts, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. Paul understood this as a vision from God and he left immediately to go on a trip that eventually led to Philippi. How did he know that this was a vision? What made him follow? Did he have other visions that he ignored? Would he have followed the vision if it had been a woman – Lydia – who had called him to come? It is impossible for us to answer these questions based on the record we have been given, but it is helpful to realize that the apostles most likely suffered from the same kind of questions that we ask today. For every story of a healing, there must have been a dozen people who weren’t healed. For every conversion there must have been hundreds that never came to faith.

While we might wish that God would speak more clearly to our generation, I think we should look at it from a different perspective. Instead of longing for a time that is gone, we should go forth in faith doing exactly what God has already told us to do – share the light and light of Christ with the world. We don’t want to take any risks, so we want absolute assurance that we are doing what God intends. Yet, when we do step out in faith, we are disappointed that things do not turn out as we expect. We think God is sending us to convert someone, but when they reject the faith we wonder if we heard correctly. We thing God is sending us to bring healing to someone who is ailing, but when they do not get well, we think we have failed.

That’s what happens when it is all about “we.” We forget that we do not know the mind of God. We do not have a complete picture of His plan.

What was on Paul’s mind when he ended up in Philippi and still had not found the man who’d appeared in His vision? Paul was in a city that was populated by mostly Gentiles. As a matter of fact, it was a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires. It could not have been a comfortable place for Paul, despite his knowledge that the Gospel was to be given to the whole world. At least in other cities there was a vital Jewish community where Paul could find friends and aid. Philippi did not even have a synagogue – how was he to find the Jews to share the Gospel with them?

Paul went to the river. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship. He went there on the Sabbath because he expected to find other believers. It is not surprising that they might like meeting by the river – there is something very peaceful about worshipping where there is flowing water. The sound is calming, but it is also an image that reminds the people of God’s presence among them. Moving water was considered living water, and rightly so. It is not surprising that God’s Spirit would be likened to a river because it is clean, clear and fresh. It is constantly changing and yet always the same.

Paul’s vision was of a man in Macedonia calling for Paul’s help. When he arrived at the place of prayer he met a woman. She was a woman of wealth, a business woman who sold purple cloth who was a believer in the one true God. What was Paul thinking when he met Lydia? Though Paul was not nearly as chauvinistic as he’s been made out to be over the years, would he have believed the vision if it had been a wealthy woman calling for his help? Would he have gone to Macedonia if he had seen Lydia in his dreams?

Paul went to Philippi not really knowing what to expect. Paul did not let that concern him. He looked for opportunities, knowing that God was in charge and that He would do His work. Paul did not look for a man in the city, he simply went about doing the work God had ordained for him – to preach the Gospel. Paul preached to whomever would listen, believing that God would make the seeds take root and grow. Paul believed the vision, but even more importantly Paul obeyed what Jesus commanded. He loved Jesus and kept His word.

We have a choice between two Gospel lessons from John today. In John 14, Jesus is answering the question from verse 22, “Lord, what is come to pass that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?” They wanted to know why the whole world would not be able to see Him. That is a pretty good question, a popular question. As a matter of fact, some people who reject Jesus use that very excuse – if God were all powerful then everyone could see Him. Jesus answered, “If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” Jesus is not concerned with the whole world following after some image or expectation. The disciples were looking for a Messiah, a Messiah that would lead God’s people into prosperity and salvation from Rome. Jesus wants His people to love God.

Last week Jesus talked about the love between believers, the love between brothers in Christ. This week the relationship is between God and His people. If we love God, then we will do what Jesus commands. What is it that He commands? Is it the things we hear in our visions and dreams? God may guide us that way, but our calling is to believe and share the Gospel with others so that they might also believe.

How much easier it would have been if Jesus had just stayed. With His resurrected body, Jesus most certainly could have stayed and ruled from Jerusalem forever, but that was not what God intended. Jesus had to leave so that He could dwell in the hearts of those who believe. By the power of the Holy Spirit, that which Christ did was now for us to do. We are the image of Christ to the world.

When Jesus told the disciples that the day would come when He could have to leave them, He also promised that they would not be left alone. He would send an advocate to continue to teach and reveal God to them. The Paraclete, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit would speak on behalf of Jesus to and through the disciples to give them power and peace. He even suggested that they should rejoice that He was leaving. If Jesus stayed, they would never be given the gift of the Holy Spirit by which they have the assurance of God’s promises dwelling in their hearts. Jesus had to go so that they could go on to do His work in this world. The living water flows from our lives into the lives of others, bring a little bit of the hope of heaven to the earth this day.

We see an image of heaven in today’s second lesson. There are so many images in the passage – a visual image of heaven given in words. We can’t even imagine the reality of this place and won’t be able to do so until we are in the midst of it all. The City of God, the New Jerusalem, is so big that it would cover about half of the United States. We want to relate this image to our human experience – to try to imagine a city that looks like a perfect cube measure 1400 square feet along the width, height and depth. It doesn’t make sense to our human minds – cities aren’t perfect cubes that big. However, John was describing the indescribable with words to which his readers could relate – that this vision he saw was immense, magnificent and greater than anything in this world.

I think about that tree – the tree of life – and wonder about the size. The tree is often depicted as being twelve different trees because it bears different types of fruit; however I believe it is one tree standing by the water of life. This tree must have been enormous, to provide fruit for all those whose name was written in the book of life. Can you imagine a tree that would bear a different type of fruit each month? I wondered what it might mean by twelve fruits. Of course, twelve is a number of completion, a number that relates to full congregation of believers as seen in the tribes of Israel and the number of disciples.

What about fruit? Though Galatians 5 in modern bibles only list nine fruit of the Spirit, the Latin Vulgate lists twelve – charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. We like to think of the fruit on that tree being perfect fresh apples or oranges, plums or cherries, but I like the idea that the fruit on that tree is fruit in keeping with faith. ? What an awesome world in which we would be living if these were the fruits on which we were living! After all, they say you are what you eat.

In the other Gospel lesson for today, John 5, Jesus brings healing to the life of a blind man. The man was near the pool of Bethesda. There were five porches on which the lame and sick gathered to be healed. It was believed that an angel came down from heaven and touched the water with healing power. When the water moved, the first one to enter into the water would be healed. The man was lying by the pool for a very long time because he had no one to help him into the water – he was never first.

This healing story is unique, though all of them are unique in their own way, this one is especially interesting. In nearly all of the stories, Jesus addressed the healed person with the statement, “Your faith has made you well.” This has given rise to an idea in the Christian church that faith is essential to healing. While faith is important, as seen clearly in so many believers in the bible being healed, the danger has become the human perspective that faith is necessary. They point to the scriptures and tell someone to whom healing has not come that they aren’t being healed because they do not believe.

In today’s story, we see something incredible. Not only does the man not believe in Jesus, he doesn’t even know from whence his healing has come. He doesn’t ask Jesus for healing; he looks to Jesus to help him into the water to be healed by the pool. He is blind, not only physically, but spiritually. He doesn’t even answer Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be healed?” He simply answers that the healing can’t happen because someone else is always there before him. Jesus heals this man anyway. Even after the healing the blind man did not know Jesus. In John 5:13, outside our reading for today, the Jews asked him who had told him to carry his mat. The man did not know.

Though Jesus eventually identified Himself to the man, this story shows us that the healing was not dependent on any human effort. It was the Word of God, in and through Jesus, that brought healing. There was no human desire or faith. There was no human works. God’s Word healed the blind man without fanfare or flourish. We are called to minister in the same way – to bring healing to those who don’t know Jesus and to do so without fanfare or flourish. Sometimes the people to whom we take God’s Word will not want what we have to give. They will think they know a better way and they will desire to receive healing in that manner. We need only speak the Word of God into their lives and disappear into the crowds.

Will the healing always come? Perhaps not, if it is not God’s will. However, it is never our place to question the will of God or the faith of the person who needs healing. God knows the hearts and He knows His plan. The blind man may never have believed in Jesus, we don’t know. He eventually learns that it was Jesus who made him well, but that’s all we hear. This story leads to questions about Jesus and his commitment to the Law. It also shows us another way Jesus healed, another way He accomplished His work. Before we say God can’t do something because we aren’t cooperative, let’s remember that nothing is impossible with God.

Jesus is present in the power of the Holy Spirit, manifest in the lives of His disciples throughout the ages. We look forward to tomorrow, to the day when we will live in heaven for eternity with our Father, restored to the relationship that was broken in the Garden. Yet, our salvation is not just a future hope, it is a present reality. But it is not for our personal satisfaction. Jesus Christ saves us with a command, “Get up and go.” We might not know where we are going or what will happen when we get there. We might see visions and have dreams but never really understand God’s intent. We need only believe and share the Gospel of Christ, knowing that God is in charge and that He can do the impossible. We don’t fail when we share the light and love of Christ. We may not seem to succeed, but it is not for us to know. We simply pray God’s will is done and obey all that He commanded. In that, in the love we share, God will be known throughout the earth.

The Psalm for today includes a word that is used more than seventy times in the psalms and a few times in a poetic portion of the book of Habakkuk. That word is “Selah.” It is not easy to identify the meaning of this word, though many would suggest it is simply a liturgical word in the midst of the psalm to direct the music – as in a rest or a stop in modern musical composition.

However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word “Selah” is thought to mean something like “stop and listen” indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means “to measure.” With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or “measure” the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Listening is more than hearing the crash in the night; it is stopping to really listen to understand what is happening.

In this passage, the word “Selah” is used twice. The first is following a benediction. “God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us.” Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, “That thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among nations. God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world. The second usage comes with a directive to the people, that they – meaning all nations – be glad and sing for joy, for God’s mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God’s grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.

This is the will and purpose of God. God knows when and how it will all come into being. For today, in the peace of Christ, we take one step at a time in faith knowing that with God the impossible is possible. There we will find peace. This is the message I would hope our children will take with them into the world; the message I would hope would be given as we send them out as disciples to share the light and life of Christ.

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