Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:16-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled.’

I’m a mom. I will always be my children’s mom no matter how old they grow. I will worry about them no matter where they end up. I will still wonder what has happened when they are a minute later than I expect them to be. My son was very late for church on Sunday and he didn’t text to tell me what happened. He wasn’t feeling well and had gone back to bed so didn’t make it, but I had visions of his car in a ditch and him crying for help. It was unnecessary stress, but I’m a mom. I will never stop caring for my children.

It is much harder to deal with my worries for my daughter because she’s living far from home. We keep up with each other via text and social media, much more than I had when I was a young woman living far from my own mother. However, I still feel the stresses when she calls to tell me she isn’t feeling well. How can I take care of her if she is a thousand miles away? She is certainly not an orphan, but I can’t be two places at once. I can only offer my words and advice and prayers; I can hope all will be well with her and that I raised an independent, intelligent woman who can take care of herself.

Who among us don’t wish that we could have the same experiences that the first disciples had with Jesus? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to walk with Him, to listen to Him teach, to watch as He made life-changing differences in people’s lives? I would love to have been there when He raised the little girl and fed the five thousand. I might have been as frightened as Peter, but I would have loved having Jesus invite me to walk on the water. I would like to have been able to ask Jesus questions so that I might understand some of the misunderstood things that He said. I want to be Mary at His feet and Martha serving Him dinner. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all have those experiences?

We can’t, however. Jesus was God, but as a man He was limited by the same things that limit us. He could not be in every place during His life on earth. He couldn’t be in Jerusalem and Galilee at the same time; He had to walk from one to the other if He wanted to minister to the people in each place. He did miraculous things, but He did them one at a time for one person at a time. He could have dwelled on earth forever, but He would have still been limited by the flesh. Even after death and resurrection, though His body was different, He would not have been able to be with you and me and all the other Christians in every generation.

That’s why He had to ascend to heaven. That’s why He invites us to be His heart and His hands in this world. And that’s why He sent the Holy Spirit. While He could not be in every time and place in flesh, He could be in every time and place in Spirit. He may not be with us as He was with the disciples two thousand years ago, but He’s with us in a much better way.

The Gospel passage for this week continues from last week when Jesus encouraged the disciples not to be troubled. He promised that He will not abandon His people. “I will not let you become orphans,” He said. He is going to leave them. This is the last Sunday before Ascension Day which will be celebrated on May 25th. We are in the final days of the forty He stayed with the disciples, training them for the future. This is it. Jesus was getting them ready for the inevitable: He had to leave.

But He would not leave them alone. He would send them a helper: the Holy Spirit. I can imagine how they felt. The sadness they felt at the crucifixion would be even greater now. Death seemed so permanent, but Jesus returned. Who knows what they would have done if He had never been raised. I doubt they would have continued His work. They were ready to get back to their old lives. Two disciples went home to Emmaus. Thomas disappeared, we don’t know where. Peter even went back to fishing. Then Jesus returned and He spent forty days nurturing them beyond discipleship into apostles. He breathed the Spirit and true life into them and taught them everything they needed to know. It was finally possible for them to understand; they became apostles sent into the world to continue His work. He says the same thing to us.

Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is not just a call to lawful behavior. We cringe a little when we start talking about the Law because we don’t want to be accused of works righteousness. Yet, we are still meant to live according to God’s Law because it is a gift to God’s people and it is the best life for us. It is good to honor our parents, to not steal, cheat or kill. It is good for us to want what we have and not envy our neighbors. It is wrong to lie or bear false witness. And it is right to live with God as our Lord.

But if we listen to this text in the context of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 13-16 that the most important commandment is to believe in Him. He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will believe in Him. We will believe He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Jesus, we will keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will be faithful to His promises. Even if we have to suffer for this faith, He will be ready to receive us with open arms.

If we love Him, we will stand so firmly in everything He has said that we will not be afraid to tell those who do not yet know Him about the reality of God. That’s what Jesus was preparing the disciples to do. Oh, they would do amazing, incredible things. Oh, they would heal the sick and cast out demons. They would provide for the well-being of the community of believers. They would even raise the dead. Most of all, however, the disciples were sent into the world to take God’s light and life to those who were lost in sin and darkness. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The job of all Jesus’ disciples is to help others find that path. He is the only way to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He is the only path to real peace.

Paul was in Athens. The Greeks were an ecumenical society. They offered something for everyone, especially in religious practice. There was a temple on every corner, which satisfied the religious needs of a very diverse community. Athens was a place where trading routes crossed; it was a place where the world came together. Since the economy of that type of place was dependent on foreigners, they wanted everyone to feel at home. They even had an altar inscribed “To an unknown god.” Those who could not find a specific temple at least had a place to worship, a place where their god could be honored and remembered.

The religious debaters of Athens heard about Paul and that he was teaching about a new God. They convinced Paul to go with them to the Areopagus, otherwise known as Mars Hill, a place of theological debate and discussion. He began his talk by commending them for their religion, but his compliment was tongue in cheek. They had an altar for an “unknown God,” just in case. We don’t want to leave any of the gods out in our worship, right?

He stepped into their world and reached them from their point of view. In doing so, however, he did not settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness of the Athenians. He told them what they were missing. He boldly proclaimed the God of creation and His Son Jesus Christ. His theology was ridiculous to the people of Athens. Though they could grasp some aspects of the Christian message, they found some things to be foolishness, not the least of which was the death and resurrection of Christ.

After Paul finished talking, some of the men on Mars Hill sneered. It was risky to go and speak that day. Paul was a man of power, intellect. He was respected as a teacher and wise man. However, talk about resurrection and the sovereignty of God made him sound like an intolerant fool. In that type of society it was unacceptable to raise one god above the others, all gods were equal. This was made even worse by the mythical stories on which Paul’s faith was built: the virgin birth and a dead God? Repentance and forgiveness were not aspects of their religious experience, so the Christian story seemed pointless and absurd. Sounds pretty much like it could happen today, doesn’t it?

Others believed and asked Paul to tell them more. Paul risked status, position and respect by boldly proclaiming the Gospel message of grace and in doing so, some came to believe. We live in a similar society, where buffets are the norm so that everyone who enters can be satisfied. There are religious houses on every corner, something for everyone. While diversity can be a good thing, and it is right for us to love our neighbor even if they worship a different God, are we willing to be like Paul boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel to those who would prefer to settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness that says that all gods are equal?

Paul knew that the people were reasonable and religious, so he took advantage of his time in Athens. He went the synagogue and preached. He talked to people on street corners and in the marketplace. I can just imagine him pulling up a chair at the street café and striking up a conversation with the others at the table, “Have you heard of Jesus?” Paul had the courage to be a bold evangelist, but our question for today is whether or not we have the same courage.

We should. We have the Holy Spirit. Yet, I suspect that there are many of us who do not have the same boldness as those early disciples. We might claim the times are different, but are they all that different?

I think we are afraid to speak the Gospel because we don’t want to be rejected. We forget that even though some will scoff, but there might just be someone who will hear the Word and want to know more. We stay silent out of fear of those who do not want to be saved, ignoring the needs of those who would be saved if only we would be gracious to share God’s Word with them. Paul certainly knew what it was like to get run out of town because of his ministry, but that didn’t stop him. Are we willing to be so bold?

I know I’ve squandered moments when I should have spoken the Gospel and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m sure there are times when most of us, if not all, decide it is just better to remain silent than say something. We can even justify our silence with scripture; after all there are plenty of verses that tell us wise men keep their mouth shut while the foolish rant on and on. We all know that there are just some times when it is better to just be silent. We decide that it is better to just live peacefully as we believe we are meant to live and allow others to live as they want to live. But there are times when we should not be silent, when a word from God is not only helpful, it is vital. There are times when God calls us to speak words we would rather not speak.

We think that kindness and good works are enough. “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.” However, the scriptures are clear that actions are not enough. Jesus says over and over again, “Listen.” He tells His listeners to “hear the word.” He calls His followers to be witnesses, to testify, to say the words that bring forgiveness, salvation and hope to the world. It is good to do what is right, but I think we use our good works as a cop-out. It isn’t enough to do what is good. People aren’t saved by good works. They don’t receive faith in a sandwich. Faith comes from hearing the Word.

Peter talks about the harm we might experience for being witnesses for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our testimony will bring peace to the world, but is likely to bring persecution. Doing what is good in this passage is proclaiming that Christ is Lord and calling people to repentance. We are called to take the saving WORD of Christ into the world, no matter what others think, say or do.

Peter was writing to a community that was being persecuted. They were afraid to do what they knew they should do. Peter wrote that they should have courage. They might suffer persecution from the things they were doing, but it was through their lives that the world would see God glorified. Instead of responding with anger, they were to respond with grace. Instead of fighting back, they were to be meek and humble. In the end, the enemies of God’s people will be put to shame. Their suffering might just be the catalyst that will cause another person to believe in Jesus and in this God will be glorified.

Reflecting the comforting words of Jesus to not be troubled in last week’s Gospel, Peter gives us two tools to help us through this instruction: do not fear and be faithful. We are invited into the work of God’s kingdom on earth, to continue what Christ started. We need not fear what will come; we have the Holy Spirit to give us the faith that God is with us, and with His help we can speak God’s truth. What is the truth? The truth is that Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He died so that we might be saved. He died so that our neighbors might be saved. He died so that our enemies might be saved. But no one can be saved without hearing that Word.

Do not be afraid. Be faithful. These are probably the hardest words any Christian can hear and follow. We don’t even have anything tangible on which to hold to give us the confidence that we need. How much easier is it when we can hold someone’s hand through tough times? Or have someone literally standing beside us. Jesus said that He would no longer be seen. It is no wonder that the disciples were so afraid in those first days after His crucifixion. He was no longer among them. Then, after the resurrection, they saw Him for forty days as He repeated the commands and promises. “Do not be afraid. Be faithful. The world won’t see me, but you will see me. You will have my Spirit and then you’ll know without a doubt that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

If we love Jesus, we will obey His commands. We will not be afraid. We will be faithful. We will speak the truth with the same love. We will not be intimidated by the world because we will know that there is something greater on which we stand.

The psalmist sings a song encouraging all God’s people to praise Him for His blessings. However, the blessings found in this psalm are not wealth, health or power. They praise God that He has preserved their lives through trials. They praise God that He has refined their lives through the suffering they faced. The psalmist says, “You sent us to prison,” and “You laid burdens on our back.” He says, “You let men ride over our heads” and “we went through fire and water.” In the end, however, God brought His people to a place of abundance.

These statements refer to the time of suffering in Egypt before the Exodus with Moses. The psalmist recognizes that Egypt was never in control, that God was doing a great work for His people. We are offended by a God that allows suffering in the world, we think is no justification for a people enslaved and mistreated, especially if there is an all powerful and omnipotent God in control.

God knows we will fail. He knows that we can’t live up to the vows we make. We can’t keep the Law perfectly because we are imperfect. He answers our prayers because He loves us and because He is faithful to His promises. He has promised that He will not leave us along and He calls us to be obedient and faithful.

I think the most important question to ask is this: Do we bless God because He has blessed us? Or do we live in the blessing and respond without fear and with faithfulness? Are we willing to give to God even when we will risk everything to do so? Are we willing to speak the truth when we come across those altars to an unknown god? Do we even know how to answer? We are encouraged to know our defense, to be ready to give an answer whenever we have the opportunity to share our testimony. Are we ready to proclaim the Good News that Christ died and rose again so that we can be part of the work of God’s kingdom in the world?

Selah. This is a word that is often found in the psalms and is a musical command to stop. It is a moment to take a breath and to think about what we are hearing or what we will hear. In today’s Psalm the word is followed by something very important for us to hear: “Come, and hear, all you who fear God. I will declare what he has done for my soul.” The psalmist is bold enough to proclaim God’s grace to whoever will listen. Are we willing to be so bold?

Come and hear and I will proclaim God’s grace to you. Jesus is the answer to all your problems.

May the Lord grant us all the strength and courage to be obedient to His commands, to stand firmly in His truth and proclaim the reality of His promises for the world so that all might hear the Word and be saved.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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