Sunday, May 1, 2005

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18 (66:8-20)
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.

Martin Luther was the son of a copper miner who, despite his lack of wealth, worked hard to put his son through school. Hans Luther wanted his son to be successful, to have a better life than his own. Martin was well on his way to becoming a lawyer when he was nearly struck dead by lightning. In his fear, Martin fell to his knees and made a vow to St. Anne, “Help St. Anne and I will become a monk!” In his work called “Concerning Monastic Vows” Luther wrote, “not freely or desirously did I become a monk, but walled around with the terror and agony of sudden death, I vowed a constrained and necessary vow.” Luther kept the vow and entered an Augustinian monastery, but he regretted his impulsiveness. He had not given serious thought to the consequences of his promise to enter the monastery.

It is not unusual for human beings to rush into a vow when they are in the midst of trouble. We cry out to God in fear, seeking His aid, and to guarantee our deliverance we vow to do something which we think will please Him. We bargain with God, try to broker our own deals so that He will do what we want. All too often we live to regret it because we are either stuck doing something that becomes a burden or we have to break the vow we have made.

There are experts that study Luther who believe his decision on the road was not a sudden one, but that he was drawn by God into a life of service to the Word and that moment in time was simply the culminating experience. As it turned out, Luther’s admission into the monastery was the first step in a journey that glorified God. We can’t know how different history would have played out if Luther had never entered the order, however it is likely that his faith would have led him into a similar lifestyle in which God’s Word was central.

The most unfortunate part of this attitude is not that we have made and broken vows, but that we think God can be convinced by our foolishness. Do we really think God will do greater things for us because we are willing to sacrifice something for the sake of our desires? Take the woman who vows to give up smoking if God will heal her ailing son. Or the man that vows to give up gambling if only God will give him that one big win.

This perspective on God’s graciousness – that it is dependent on our actions – limits God and makes Him little more than a supplier of our whims. We take control, putting the power into our own hands. This was, and is, manifested in the ideology that if we are good enough, righteous enough, obedient enough, then God will save us.

It doesn’t help when we read passages from the scriptures like today’s Gospel lesson from that perspective. Jesus says, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself unto him.” This seems to make our obedience the catalyst of God’s love and Jesus’ presence in our lives.

In fact, Jesus says, “If you love me, ye will keep my commandments.” This is not a statement about blind obedience to a set of rules, but rather a manifestation of the love of Christ in our lives. We love because Christ first loved us. It is because He lives that we also live. We are in Christ because He is in us.

In this passage, Jesus makes a vow. He promises that He will send an advocate, a helper – the Spirit of Truth. Is this helper to be our servant? No, again, this is not about us and our needs. The Paraclete is Christ’s helper who will live with us for ever, continuing the work of Christ Jesus in our lives. He will continue to reveal the Truth, to remind us of God’s love and mercy and to guide us in our journey of faith. This promise of a helper is not given in response to our love, but rather so that we might be held in the love of Christ.

In the psalm for today, we see that the language of praise puts God’s work ahead of our needs and desires. God holds our soul in life, He keeps us from slipping. The psalmist even says that it is God who tries us, imprisons us and burdens us. “Thou didst cause men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water…” Yet, this passage does not stop at our sufferings. The psalmist continues, “But thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.” Our salvation, our deliverance through times of trial, is dependent upon God. Then, and only then, can we go into the house with offerings and praise. God saves, we respond.

I wish the reading for today included the verses that precede our passage. The psalmist offers and invitation for all to see what God has done, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!” We are called to shout with joy to God and to sing the glory of His name. The psalm refers specifically to the miracle of the Red Sea, how God parted the waters to deliver the Hebrews out of the hands of Pharaoh into their journey to the Promised Land. Yet, in John Jesus was preparing the disciples for an even greater deliverance – from sin and death into new life.

The time for His crucifixion was nearing and these words were part of His final instructions to His disciples. “Yet a little while, and the world beholdeth me no more…” The closer He got to the cross, the more He talked of His suffering and yet the disciples were not ready for Him to go. Last week Jesus promised that those who believe in Jesus will do greater things than Jesus. Up until this time, the disciples did nothing without Jesus near. They were confident in His power, but He kept telling them that He would not be there forever. How would they continue, and do greater things, without Him?

The promised Holy Spirit would be there to help them, to keep them in Christ’s love and guide them in all righteousness. They could not do it on their own. Peter was a perfect example of a man quick to make a vow that he could not keep. When Jesus spoke of his suffering, Peter swore he’d be there along side Jesus. Yet, when it came time for the real test, Peter denied Him. The same is true for us. On our own, we are unable to keep His commandments. It is only by dwelling in Him as He dwells in us that we can accomplish any good works. When Peter failed, he was devastated. It took the forgiveness and mercy of Christ to restore Peter.

Peter came to realize that it was not his own power that would complete the work that Jesus called the apostles to do. It is not an easy task. Living for the kingdom of God was bound to bring persecution and suffering. He writes, “…fear not their fear, neither be troubled…” Our calling as Christians is to follow our Lord Jesus, not only into His glory but also into His suffering. “For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing. Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous…” The reason for His suffering was to bring us to God, to restore our broken relationship and renew our hearts with His love.

Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, while the Paraclete lives amongst us as we wait eagerly for the coming of Jesus again. The Spirit, dwelling in our hearts reveals and reminds us of all that Jesus did and said so that we will be ready to share the love of God with others. Peter tells us to be ready with an answer to give to anyone who asks us about our hope. But we are to do so with graciousness and humility.

All too often, we take on the responsibilities of our Christian faith with a gusto and zeal that comes off to others with arrogance and pride. This is certainly true of Martin Luther. While he is remembered for the reformation and a prolific gift of writing – his writings fill volumes. He brought grace back into the understanding of the Church and made the people active participants in the faith they confessed. Yet, Luther will also be remembered for his sharp tongue and crude way of dealing with his enemies. He is known for telling the devil to kiss his ass, for claiming the pope was the antichrist. And of course, his rantings against the Jews were used hundreds of years later during Hitler’s reign as justification for the holocaust.

At times he felt burdened by the work he was called to do. This manifested in the way he did his work. The same is true of us. We get so caught up in our work that we forget that it is Christ’s work through us. We answer our detractors not with meekness and fear but with arrogance and pride. Luther’s opinion of the Jews has long been used against him and those who see the value and beauty of his theological perspective. When we do not speak the Gospel in love, we too will suffer and be put to shame for our words.

So, as Christians we are called not to live in obedience to a set of rules, but rather in the heart and mercy of God. If we vow to be obedient, we put a terrible burden on ourselves that we can not keep – it will only lead us down a road of destruction. But Christ, who lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, will guard our hearts and our tongues so that we will honor Jesus and keep His commandments – the commandments of love.

Paul was in Athens one day and could not help noticing that the city was filled with statues and altars to many gods. They had idols of every type – some made of gold, others made of silver and yet others made of stone. He addressed the listeners at the Areopagus, a meeting place for discussing the religious issues of the day. He said, “I see you are religious people.” This would have been seen as a compliment by those gathered there until Paul continued with his speech. The people would have understood the word religious as either a compliment or an insult – it could have meant ‘superstitious’. Paul pointed out an altar that was inscribed with the words “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” and he described the God they did not know.

See, the religious understanding of the day was to honor every possible god and they did not want to suffer the wrath of some god that they did not know. So, they honored those unknown gods with an altar. They worship and devotion was not in the living God that was creator and redeemer of the world. Instead, they paid honor to man-made idols – gods that had no power or Truth.

Paul told his listeners that they were not religious, but rather superstitious. He described the God of the universe, the One who made the heavens and earth, the God that does not need the works of men since He gives breath to all living things. He tells them that He made all the nations of the earth to seek Him “…if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being…” God is near to all men, if only they would see and hear Him. In hearing the Gospel, the Spirit of God, the Paraclete, takes residence in the hearts of men.

How do we know this is true? After all, throughout the history of man many have claimed to hold the Truth of God. There were even zealots that died on the crosses of the Romans as false messiahs. In today’s world, people worship a number of gods. A great many people even stand firmly in the ideology that the human person is good and right and true unto himself. They have no need for a God that saves. If they believe in a god at all, besides themselves, it is a god that has no control or power over the universe. They think that God, the Godhead as understood in Christian thought and belief, is myth while the gods made of gold, silver or stone are real because they can be touched.

So, how do we know that Jesus is the Messiah and that what He speaks is the truth? Paul told his listeners that God gave us the assurance we need by raising Jesus from the dead. His life has become our life as He lives in our hearts and in our minds. The day will come when Jesus will return to judge all men. He is the only righteous one, the only one who can judge. He will return, just as He has promised. Until that day we are called to live in Him as He lives in us, to do all that He has commanded.

He commanded that we love. We are not called to live a life of obedience that will burden our hearts or to take vows that we can not keep. Martin Luther eventually left the monastery, and he went on to do even greater things. He brought the Gospel message back into focus in a world that had become superstitious. Many in his day believed that their works would bring blessings from God, that they could make deals with Him. He reminded us that though we seek God, we seek a God that is right under our nose. He has not left us, or abandoned us. He has given us an advocate, the Comforter, to dwell in our hearts for ever.

Living the life He has called us to live is not burdensome; keeping His commandments is not hard. We do so not by our own power, but with humility and mercy in the love of Christ. Thanks be to God.

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