Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
Psalm 146;
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.

Have you ever become overwhelmed by the stresses of a big project or event? There are a lot of details that go into the planning and execution of anything of importance. We had an open house a few months after we moved into our house five years ago. I had to make sure that the house was clean, that there was plenty of food and drink. We made it an open house, but planned on doing a house blessing at a certain hour, so most of our guests came at that time. We invited a lot of people, and a lot of people showed up. We had more than fifty guests! Luckily the weather was nice so people could gather outside to fellowship.

It was really difficult to keep my eyes on everything that day. I had plenty of food, but kept some in the refrigerator so it would stay fresh. It wasn’t until the end of the party that I realized that we had not continued to fill the deviled eggs. We had a lot left over. I was so busy being a hostess that I couldn’t take care of that task. I should have assigned it to someone.

It is very easy to become overwhelmed with some of the details when putting on a big event. How many times have we attended events where the sound system doesn’t work right or the name tags were left at the office? Slide shows and videos never seem to work. There’s always something wrong with the number of wine glasses for dinner. Some server always manages to scoop too many potatoes on the first plates so there aren’t enough for the last ones.

I was a DJ and worked a wedding with a bride who wanted a very specific song. She gave it to me as part of a very long list of other songs she wanted, but didn’t tell me that one was most important. I told her I’d find as many of the songs as I could. She was terribly disappointed when I told her I had not found that one song; it ruined her whole day. Luckily, I made a phone call and managed to find a copy that could be delivered to the party immediately. I’m not sure why that one tiny detail was so important to the bride, but it fell through the cracks. Something always seems to go wrong.

Imagine what it must have been like for the first Christians. Not only were they trying to understand everything that had happened, they were trying to establish something very new.

The first followers of Jesus probably numbered a few hundred. We focus our attention on the Twelve during the ministry of Jesus, but it is likely that there were far more that regularly attended Him. Luke tells us of a time when Jesus sent seventy out to share the kingdom of God with the nations. The crowd in the Upper Room for the Last Supper as well as in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion was likely even larger than that, including women and children. Matthias replaced Judas and was chosen out of a group of seventy who “have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21b-22, WEB)

The group of Twelve was important. While there were many others who had been with Jesus from the beginning, Jesus had given the Twelve an important role as leaders among the disciples. They spent more time with Jesus, had been taught more thoroughly. While I don’t think Jesus ever meant for there to be a hierarchy of disciples, the Twelve certainly stood separate from the rest. Among those disciples were the inner circle, Peter, James and John, who had been witness to some of the more private moments of Jesus’ time on earth.

The Twelve, including Matthias, needed to focus on certain aspects of ministry. They had to take what Jesus had taught them and learn how to teach it to others. Jesus did so many good things along the way, but the most important thing was always sharing the Word of God with the people. We see that especially in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The people followed Jesus because their bellies were full, but Jesus rebuked them because they missed the sign in the meal. “Believe.” The Word of God brings faith, but if we are so busy filling bellies, then we miss the opportunity to give the people what they really need.

Jesus knew this would be a problem. It was one of the temptations He faced in the wilderness. The devil tempted Him to turn all the rocks into bread, but Jesus reminded him that the real bread is God’s Word. Peter learned that lesson and knew that it was important for the Twelve to keep their focus on what was important.

Yet, we also know the importance of ensuring that the needs of our community are met. Jesus would not want anyone to go hungry. He commands us to take care of one another. He gives us the authority to do the works He did. We are called to feed the poor, to give a cup of water to those who are thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned and to heal the sick. There is so much to be accomplished. It is hard enough when the community is small, but imagine how difficult it became in those first days of the Church.

There are always growing pains. Ask anyone who has been involved in a church that has had sudden growth. The numbers go up faster than the workers can be trained, and something always falls through the cracks. That’s the reason many congregations hit a plateau. They level out because there is no plan for dealing with so many extra people. The best congregations plan for growth long before it comes so that they are ready with helpers to keep things moving forward.

That’s what Peter suggested when he began to hear complaints that things were being missed. He knew the importance of what the Twelve had to do, and that others needed to be prepared to do the other work. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate the work of our pastors and we think that they can, and should, do much of that work themselves. Ask any pastor, of a small or large congregation, how hard it is to accomplish everything they need to accomplish! Some congregations depend on their pastors for everything, from preaching to scrubbing the toilet bowl. I once had a conversation with a pastor who was dealing with a difficult situation at his church. The people expected him to put in a forty-hour week doing the things they thought needed to be done. So, they asked him to put on paper his schedule and to document his work. He included time for prayer. His members were taken aback: “You pray on the clock? Shouldn’t you do that on your own time?”

Peter knew that prayer was vital to the work they were doing. It was new. Though they had spent time with Jesus, around three years, there was still so much to learn and understand. They needed God’s guidance to work out the details of this new community of faith. They knew that they could not push forward and make decisions without first listening to God. Sadly, we make a lot of decisions in the church these days without seeking God’s help with the matter. We think it is more important for our pastors to clean toilets than to pray. We want them to fill their calendars with busy work that we could accomplish, when they should be spending most of their time in prayer and ministry of the Word.

We are reminded by this text that our pastors need to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word without being tasked with jobs we can do. The twelve looked to the disciples for help. The chosen men - Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus - had been around for awhile. They may have been in the groups of disciples sent out to preach and heal by Jesus. They were probably in the Upper Room on that first Easter night and on Pentecost. They were not part of the Twelve, but had heard and seen Jesus with their own ears and eyes.

These were not dish washers; they were men of wisdom and power. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. He preached the Word even as he worked to meet the physical needs of the community of faith. Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him. Jesus said we will do greater things, and that is what Stephen did. He is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. Yet, his martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life. That was won at the cross of Christ. Our mission is not just about living the example of Christ in the world; it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. There God is truly glorified.

Today’s Gospel lesson includes statements of wonder from two of the disciples. Thomas, whose unbelief and confession was the focus just a few weeks ago, didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He told them that He was going to prepare a place for them and that they would follow Him. “You know the way,” He said. But Thomas didn’t know where He was going. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” He said. Jesus wasn’t talking about a trip to a place, but rather the path to God’s kingdom.

Jesus is not simply one of the ways to God; He is the way, the truth and the life. His way is not just a right way to get to heaven. Jesus did not say that those who think or act as He does will inherit the kingdom of God. He said, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Jesus is the gate that leads to eternal life. There is no other way. There are those, even some Christians, who see Jesus as merely another chapter in the story of God. To them, Jesus need not be the only way to God, but rather an example of one path we can take to know God. Jesus is the only way.

Phillip, still confused asked Jesus to show them the Father. Philip wanted to believe, but he was having a hard time believing without something on which He could grasp with his senses and his mind. He just wanted Jesus to show them some tangible evidence. It is certainly not too much to ask from a man who was demanding such an extraordinary sacrifice of His followers. Don’t be troubled? How can we go through even a day without a bit of worry, especially when our world seems to be falling apart? Believe in someone? People fail us every day. They break promises. They break our hearts. It is no wonder that Philip wanted something to help him hold on to the hope which Jesus was promising.

Jesus wasn’t just a teacher or rabbi. He wasn’t just another person demanding something from them. He wasn’t just someone asking them to have faith without reason. “Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I tell you, I speak not from myself; but the Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake.” Jesus is the way and He is so close to the Father that being with Him means being with God. There is no other path.

God’s way is different. He does not need anything we have; He gives freely out of His love for His creation. That is why we take refuge in God when we face difficulty, committing our souls to His care no matter what should happen. For no matter what happens to our bodies, God has rescued us from death through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our good works will fail us because we will fail to do everything that needs to be done. We can’t solve the world’s problems with our physical labor or all the money that exists. We need something greater. We need someone greater: Jesus. He has laid down the future not only of an earthly Church that does good work, but of an eternal kingdom where we will dwell in the presence of God forever. These are words that need to be heard. Unfortunately, many will cover their ears. They don’t want to hear this. They don’t want to know that Jesus is the way because they like the path they have chosen.

Because they do not want to hear, we will face persecution and rejection. We probably won’t be stoned and I doubt we’ll see a similar fate of the other disciples. That doesn’t make the message any easier to speak, especially since the persecution we face might mean the difference between a job or friendship. We might even lose our family over our passionate proclamation of God’s truth. But this is what God calls us to do: speak the truth with grace and mercy. They can’t believe if they don’t hear. They can’t experience God’s forgiveness if they don’t know they are in need of it. They won’t be saved if they never realize that they need a Savior. Though they will cover their ears, preach it louder; speak more boldly with love.

Do not be troubled, because even when the world rejects what you, God will not. He will be with you through everything: good and bad. Ultimately, His promises will be fulfilled. Even if we suffer at the hands of enemies that refuse to listen, God has rescued us from the greatest enemy, death. At that moment, we’ll see Jesus at the right hand of God, as He welcomes us into God’s glory for eternity. We’ll see Him with outstretched arms ready to draw us into His bosom forever. There in the glorious presence of God we’ll know real joy and peace forever.

God often calls us to do things that we would rather not do. He calls us to share the Gospel with our neighbor, but we are afraid we’ll sound like a Jesus freak. He calls us to feed the poor, but we don’t want to give money to someone who will use the money for drugs or alcohol. He calls us to rebuke or correct a brother, but we think, “Who am I to do this? I’m not perfect or intelligent enough to do what God wants me to do.” We ask God for confirmation, for a clear sign that it is Him that we are hearing. We put off the task because we fear recrimination or we have doubts of the calling.

Jesus told the disciples, “Don’t let your heart be troubled.” Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us. These words of Jesus are some of the most comforting of scripture. We can rest in His promises; He is preparing a place for us. One day we will be with Him. This is the promise of eternal life.

We are comforted by the words of Jesus but wonder at them, too. He told the disciples that they would do all greater works than Himself. Have any of us really done anything so extraordinary? What did He mean? Will we really do miracles greater even than what He did? Or is there some greater mission for which we have been sent into the world? People are sick, lonely, burdened, imprisoned, hungry and poor. The church has worked for millennia to help ease the pain which is suffered in this world. This is a wonderful mission. Yet, people from every religion respond to the world’s troubles by doing good works. They find peace and joy in their worship and love in their fellowship with other believers. Christians are not unique in this type of life.

Christians are called to something greater: a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough.

What we need most in this world is reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet how many even think they need to be forgiven? Rather than seeking the justification of God, we justify our sins as if they are God-given rights or even personal expressions of our own lives. Even worse, we no longer recognize that sin is more than just the things we do wrong. It is the separation that was created between God and man in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word and chose to believe the serpent. So, in today’s world we still ask the question, “Did God really say?” and we find ways to juxtapose our wants and desires alongside God’s truth.

We must trust in God, not ourselves, or we will be just like Adam and Eve in that Garden. As we continue to ask the question, “Did God really say?” we will find ourselves in the same position: outside the grace of God on our own path. It does not matter if the path appears to be one of goodness and righteousness. If Christ is not the foundation, then it is a path to nowhere.

Peter, Stephen and the rest of the disciples began to understand this as they prayerfully sought God’s will for their lives. God didn’t pick a particularly talented group of men to build His Church. He picked a motley crew of misfits. He did this for a reason. He wanted to show us that He doesn’t choose those who are perfect, but that He perfects those who are chosen. Stephen didn’t accomplish what he accomplished because he was particularly good or wise. He was good and wise because God gave him the power and the words.

He gives us the power and the words, too. As a matter of fact, the promise in today’s Gospel passage is as much for us as it was for those first Christians. Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

The world will reject us. The world will demand things that are not according to God’s will. We are called to live in hope no matter the circumstances we face. We are called to dwell in the presence of God today because He will help us through our troubles, even unto death. In faith we can join with Stephen in crying out to God to be our refuge, so that we might dwell in His presence today, tomorrow and always. And we are called to share the hope of the promise with all those who cross our path no matter the consequences. For in doing so, in sharing the forgiveness of God and helping God in the ministry of reconciliation, we will truly see greater things happen than ever happened with Jesus in flesh. He went to be with the Father so we could be His hands, and mouths, in this world.

The world might trouble us, but we have no reason to be troubled because we believe in God and we believe in Jesus. Whatever we are called to do, whether it is to be like Peter in prayer and preaching or Stephen in service, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us.

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