Sunday, May 13, 2018

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-15
John 17:11b-19

He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesnít believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.

I served on a jury two years ago. It was a horrible experience for the twelve of us. We were trying a child molestation case and the defendant was obviously a creep. We all, from the beginning, believed that he was guilty. We all listened intently to find the one thing we needed to convict, but the evidence was not there. Even the testimony of the victim was filled with holes and inconsistencies. One juror fought long and hard for conviction, but when we reviewed the testimony, she finally agreed. We had to rule that the man was not guilty.

I donít think I would like to be a judge. They sit on the bench every day and listen to the stories being told to them by both plaintiffs and defendants. I often watch ďThe People's CourtĒ and other court television shows. The small claims cases are taken out of the system and into the limelight. These cases have a financial limit, but there is not a limitation on the strangeness and hilarity. The litigants tell stories that are unbelievable, not only because they are so strange, but because they simply are not truthful.

On one episode, the plaintiff obviously forged a signature to prove her case, even the name was misspelled on the faked promissory note. On other episodes, plaintiffs and defendants forget their stories even while they are telling them, jumping from one idea to another. The judge will often call attention to something they had written in their statement to the court that is contrary to their testimony. They make excuses or justify their words to try to convince the judge to rule in their favor. In the end, however, the judge has to make a decision based on everything he or she hears according to the law.

The judge often says, ďI donít believe you.Ē We want to believe what they say, especially since they have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, many people do not take that oath seriously. They make the vow, but then say what they think will help them. Unfortunately, when their stories do not line up, the judge sees past the lies and rules accordingly. The litigants often respond, ďI am not a liar!Ē yet their answers to the questions clearly show that they have not told the truth. The problem is that many people think it is ok to be a little dishonest and think they are good people even when they twist the truth. The judge, however, has to pick through the lies and find the truth that will provide justice to everyone concerned.

ďI donít believe you,Ē leads to the assumption that the person is a liar. Sometimes I question the judgment of the judge because I donít think he or she has really heard or understood what was said. I am surprised some days when the judge does not believe a story that seems to make complete sense to me. Of course, Iím limited in my knowledge; I only see what the editors and producers of the show reveal to the audience. I donít see all the evidence or have a chance to review the litigantsí statements before the show. The judge has information that I do not know, giving him or her insight into the character of the litigant or the case that is unavailable to the rest of us.

This is what happened to those of us on the jury two years ago. See, there were people there supporting the victim and they were shocked and appalled that we presented a verdict of not guilty. How could we do so when the victim was so obviously devastated by the events? They were basing their judgment on just what they wanted to see, not what was presented before us. They didnít understand that some of the evidence was inadmissible. The hope of the prosecution was always that the lingering emotions of those pieces would tip us toward judgment. Instead, it left lingering doubts which meant we had to rule not guilty. In the end, we didnít believe the testimony.

Our judgment is not always right; we are fallible human beings. We see the world through our imperfect and biased understanding. We did the best we could based on what we were given. Those who judged the jury two years ago were upset because they judged us by their mission to protect the children. They refused to see the possibility that the child was not telling the truth. They refused to believe the lack of evidence.

Iím wrong sometimes, arenít we all. It is important for us to make our judgments on the information on hand. We must remember that sometimes others have more information and fewer biases. We all make mistakes. We have to discern whether or not to believe the things that people say. The experts in fields of study do not always agree; some even give totally opposing answers to the same question. The things that Jesus said stood against the words and wisdom of the Jews and the Romans. Those things still stand against the words and wisdom of our world today. It is no wonder some people donít believe. Even those of us with faith struggle to believe.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when it is very difficult to find the truth. We donít believe politicians. We donít believe journalists. We donít believe the authorities. We donít believe the brutes that run on the streets and attack others. We donít believe our family or friends when they say something that does not fit our expectations. We donít believe others, and when we donít believe them, we make them out to be liars. Sadly, our judgment of not guilty fell upon the victim; we did not believe her testimony. I would not call her a liar, but we questioned her truth which caused doubt.

John writes, ďHe who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesnít believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.Ē Quite frankly, it is hard to believe in Jesus and what He said. His truth seems questionable when seen through our eyes. His preaching and teaching went against the norms of society, not only the religious expectations of the Jews but also the secular and political expectations of the Romans. Even today some suggest that His teaching isnít all meant for our time and place. They pick and choose what they want to believe about God and explain away the rest. Some who claim to be Christian even reject the crucifixion. ďI canít believe in a god who would murder his own son.Ē So, they focus on ďGod is LoveĒ and set aside anything that they deem opposed to their understanding of love.

They call God a liar because they do not believe that Jesus is exactly who He says He is and that Jesus does what He says He does. Disbelief is a judgment against God.

John writes, ďThese things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.Ē This is written to believers - those who already know the story of Jesus, His ministry and death on the cross. It is written for those who already believe that Jesus rose from death into life. It is written for those of every generation who already live in the life that He gives through faith. Why would we need to hear these words? We need them as much as those who still need to hear the Gospel message, because we still live in the flesh and we have moments of doubt and uncertainty.

This Sunday stands between Ascension and Pentecost. Imagine what the disciples were going through at the time of todayís reading from Acts. Jesus had just spent forty days living with them after He had risen from the dead. He was the same, but not the same. He was glorified and yet still ate with them and talked to them about the things of God. He was calling them to a greater purpose, even greater than when He was alive. They were to carry on His work, not simply follow Him wherever He went, but to go out on their own to do the work.

Yet, things didnít seem to be going very well to start. Jesus chose twelve to carry on the mission, a really wonderful number because it represents the tribes of Israel and was considered the number of divine government. But one of the twelve died at his own hand after falling into despair about his own role in the death of Jesus. Judas went to the Temple, to the priests of God, to find forgiveness for his sins against Jesus, but they laughed in his face and sent him away. He did not know what else to do, so he killed himself. Peter had also mourned over his role in the crucifixion of his Lord - his fear and denial of Jesus in those last hours - but he did not despair, he waited prayerfully for whatever was to come. He found forgiveness when Jesus returned and he was restored in his relationships with God, Jesus and the other disciples. Judas was lost.

Judas is a hard character to understand. In Judas we see failure. In Judas we see the follower who is faithless. In Judas we see the member of the organization that went his own way, who did his own thing. When we are hurt by someone, we think of them as a Judas.

Judas did not seem to have any choice. In the prayer from Johnís Gospel, Jesus calls Judas ďthe son of destructionĒ which means that he was slated for eternal damnation. Yet, Jesus says he was destined for such. Could Judas have done anything but turn Jesus over to the authorities? Jesus had to die. He knew it from the beginning and had been telling His disciples about His death in the parables and teachings. It was part of the plan. Judas was destined to be the one to betray Jesus. Prophecy said that it would be one who was part of their group. Jesus even told Judas to go and do what he had to do. Can we really blame Judas for Jesusí death when Jesus knew that it had to be that way?

What did Jesus mean when he said that Judas was destined for eternal damnation? Was Judasí suicide alone in a field part of the plan? Or, by eternal damnation did Jesus simply mean that Judas would be blamed and damned by every generation of Christian forever for Jesusí death? Judas was, after all, not the only one to turn his back on Jesus. All the disciples ran away. Peter, beloved Peter, denied Jesus three times on the night of the trial, and did not stand with Jesus at the food of the cross. Peterís response to the arrest was as Jesus predicted, but it served no greater purpose for Godís plan. As a matter of fact, Peterís denial was self-centered. He was protecting himself. Judas, on the other hand, was doing what he was expected to do.

At this point, the disciples did not know what would happen. Even with all Jesus had said and done, they still were not prepared to go out into the world. They were the twelve and others, waiting for the promised Comforter. The words that Jesus spoke in those hours before His crucifixion must have been ringing in their ears as they waited. ďBut now I come to you, and I say these things in the world, that they may have my joy made full in themselves.Ē Joy? What Joy? Jesus is gone, Judas is dead, they cast lots to pick another apostle, they had no idea what would come next. They were waiting, perhaps not so patiently. On Pentecost it will all come together when they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Then their ministry would truly begin.

We have the Holy Spirit today because Jesus sent Him into our lives. Yet, donít we still have moments when we are not so patiently waiting for whatever is going to come next? Donít we wonder why we are in a specific place at a specific time, wonder what God would have us do? At times I think that I have it all figured out and then something goes wrong. Thatís when Iím most likely to be unsure if I can even hear God or discern what Heís saying in my life.

These words in Johnís letter are comforting to me, particularly at those times. Theyíve been written so that even when we donít have a clue what's going on with Godís Kingdom in the world around us, we can know that we have eternal life in Christ. Those who believe in His name are assured that Godís testimony is true, and His testimony is found in His Son, through whom we have life.

The psalmist tells us that the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. For Judas, it solved his problem. Our problem is that sometimes we justify taking the way of the wicked. It is fun, exciting, and an adventure. Some may think that the way of righteousness seems uninteresting, tedious, boring. It is hard going counter to the culture. And it doesnít seem like God always protects those on the right road or punish those going the wrong way. After all, the good suffer as much as the wicked. But, there is joy found at the end of the journey as God welcomes those who have followed His path home.

That doesnít mean the path will be easy. After all, of the apostles, only John died as an old man. Most of them were martyred, punished for spreading the Gospel to an ever expanding world. Judas died by his own hand, alone in a field paid for with the blood money that he received to betray Jesus. The apostles ended their lives faithful to the Lord. Judas died in despair. The apostles knew they were forgiven. Judas was eternally damned. Though they all suffered in their own way, the apostles had joy but Judas had nothing.

We all suffer moments like Judas and Peter, on the verge of despair and not knowing what will come next. How do we respond? Do we take matters into our own hands like Judas, or do we wait patiently like Peter, knowing that Godís Word is true and that He is faithful to His promises? Do we believe God?

The difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter waited. He was probably suffering from despair just like Judas. He thought he could handle anything and that he could stand up with Jesus, but he failed. Peter was not a strong man. He constantly wavered between bravado and humiliation. In one breath Peter could confess his faith that Jesus is Lord and then in the next breath think he could control the will and purpose of God. Perhaps the fact that he couldnít stand on a decision was his salvation in those dark days between the crucifixion and resurrection. Perhaps he was patient because of the community in which he lived. Judas didnít have that community. He was, and still is, blamed for what happened on that dark day two thousand years ago. Whether he deserves our disdain or not, he will forever be damned in our eyes. He followed the path of the wicked.

Judas didnít believe Jesus and made God out to be a liar. Judas was not wicked because he betrayed Jesus; he was wicked because he didnít stand upright when the judgment came. He did not remain focused on the God of mercy, taking in the living water of grace that came from Jesus Christ the Lord. The psalmist says that the way of the wicked is doomed, but perhaps it is not because of their sinful actions but instead because they do not believe Godís Word.

The question for us today is whether or not we believe Godís Word. Will we believe that God will be faithful to His promises, even if it seems as if He has abandoned us? Or will we make God a liar by not believing the testimony that God gave us about His Son Jesus Christ and the eternal life He won for us on the cross? Will we wait for Him, knowing that we have been assured of the eternal life won for us by Jesus Christ? Will we have such confidence in this promise that we will trust God in everything, looking to Him for everything we need? Will we stand upright when judgment comes, connected to the God who gives life and brings forth the fruit in our lives? Will we trust Godís lovingkindness even when it seems as though there is no hope for us? Will we believe the witness of the scriptures both Old and New Testament that tell the story of the One who has won for us the eternal life that is ours in Christ Jesus?

We are not perfect today, nor will we be until the day we come face to face with our Lord Jesus. We still doubt and fear and make really bad decisions. Yet, it is at those very moments we can turn to the words of John and rest assured that we have eternal life through the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The writer of todayís Psalm refers to two types of people: those who delight in God and those who are wicked. Arenít we both? Arenít we those who believe but doubt, who know but still wonder what will happen tomorrow? We are like the trees planted by the streams of water, yielding fruit in due season, but we also have chaff that needs to be blown away.

The chaff is the seed covering; the part that protects the seed while it grows, but when on the threshing room floor it is blown away. After harvest it is useless. So too are our doubts and fears and our worrying about tomorrow. That will all be blown away so that we will face our Lord covered in His righteousness rather than our wickedness. What a wonderful promise, a great hope in which we live. Eternal life is ours today and it will be ours tomorrow by His Grace and His Word. His testimony is true and all who believe in His name have eternal life.

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