Sunday, May 25, 2014

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

If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you.

Last week I wrote, “Jesus told the disciples, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.’ 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.” Our passage ended with Jesus saying, “If ye shall ask anything in my name, that will I do.”

The passage for this week continues the text from this comforting talk from Jesus. He promises that He will not abandon His people. “I will not let you become orphans,” He says. He is going to leave them. This is the last Sunday before Ascension Day, which is Thursday. We are in the final days of the forty He stayed with the disciples, training them for the future. This is it. Jesus is getting them ready for the inevitable: He has to leave.

But He won’t leave them alone. He will send a helper: the Holy Spirit. I can imagine how they felt. The sadness they felt at the crucifixion will 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’s spent the past few weeks nurturing them beyond discipleship into apostles. He’s breathed the Spirit and true life into them and taught them everything they need to know. They could finally understand. They have become people who will be sent into the world to continue His work.

But to do that, He has to leave. Jesus was a man. He was God, but He was a man. He was limited by time and space. He was limited by flesh. If He stayed, He would only ever be able to be in one place at one time. He could travel; as a matter of fact there are myths and legends all over the world that Jesus did travel. An English hymn by Sir Hubert Parry based on the poem by William Blake asks, “And did those feet in ancient timewalk upon England's mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?” Similar stories exist in India and even in America. While Jesus might have reached the four corners of the earth, He could not be in all places at once. He could not dwell intimately in the presence of millions of Christians over the span of thousands of years. As much as we talk about Jesus living in our hearts, He could not do that unless He went to sit at the right hand of God. He needed to leave so that He could send a helper.

The Amplified Bible shows us what the Holy Spirit will do for us in John 14:16-17, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby), that He may remain with you forever—The Spirit of Truth, Whom the world cannot receive (welcome, take to its heart), because it does not see Him or know and recognize Him. But you know and recognize Him, for He lives with you [constantly] and will be in you.” Jesus left because He can’t give us each a piece of His flesh, but He can give us all a measure of His Spirit. Without that Spirit, we could do nothing.

We all have those moments that I call Godincidents. They are opportunities that God presents to us so that we can speak the Gospel into the lives of others. Sadly, most of us miss the opportunities or we are too afraid to do what we know we should do. Persecution, whether it is physical beating and threat of death, or rejection in merely intellectual or emotional ways, is a strong force in our world. The culture has made it clear that Christian faith is pointless and useless, not only in today’s world, but since the beginning of the Church. We don’t want to wear our faith on our sleeve; we don’t want to force our religion on our neighbors. Sometimes we even justify ignoring God’s call out of love of our neighbor. That’s the devil doing what the devil does: stops faith from spreading.

I’ve probably told this story before, but there is one occasion when the opportunity could not have been more abundantly clear. We were living in England, and I had gotten into the habit of spending an hour or two at the chapel in prayer every week. One day was particularly fruitful, and I had a supernatural spring to my step. I went to the post office to pick up our mail with a song on my heart and a smile on my face. The man behind the counter noticed and commented. “What has you so happy today?” he asked with a smile. I could have told him how much I love Jesus, how wonderful it is to have a deep, personal, abiding relationship with my God, how forgiveness is a very real and powerful thing. I could have shared the Gospel with him. I didn’t. I just told him I was having a good day. Ten feet outside the door I realized that I’d missed my chance.

Paul did not miss his chance. Today’s first lesson comes from Paul’s second missionary journey, and his ministry was extraordinarily fruitful. People came to believe the Gospel in every town where he taught. There were, however, always people who rejected the Gospel and wreaked havoc on the work. He went from town to town, sometimes pushed out by the threat of riots, but that didn’t stop the Gospel. The people of Berea received the Word of grace with great gusto, but the Jews of Thessalonica would have nothing of it. They came to Berea and incited the masses in the hope that the Romans would put a stop to Paul’s work. The Church sent Paul to the next place, Athens, which his companions (Silas and Timothy) remained. He sent for them after he arrived.

Paul was never one to sit around and do nothing. He wandered the streets of Athens and paid attention to the daily practices of her people. They were a religious bunch, with temples and altars to every possible god or goddess you can imagine. I have been reading “The City of God” by St. Augustine, and it is amazing how many gods or demigods or god-like beings they worshiped. They had a god for everything. They had gods that counteracted the work of other gods. One act, like growing wheat, took the help of a dozen different gods—one for the dirt, one for the seed, one for the water, one for the sun, one to make the seed die, one to make the seed sprout, one to make the leaves appear, one to make the stem grow, one to make the blossom appear, one to make the fruit, one for the seed inside the fruit… the list can go on. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but in the reading of Augustine’s explanation, I was shocked at how many gods were necessary for every day events.

Augustine writes, “Why is the bed-chamber filled with a crowd of deities, when even the groomsmen have departed? And, moreover, it is so filled, not that in consideration of their presence more regard may be paid to chastity, but that by their help the woman, naturally of the weaker sex, and trembling with the novelty of her situation, may the more readily yield her virginity. For there are the goddess Virginiensis, and the god-father Subigus, and the goddess-mother Prema, and the goddess Pertunda, and Venus, and Priapus. What is this? If it was absolutely necessary that a man, laboring at this work, should be helped by the gods, might not someone god or goddess have been sufficient? Was Venus not sufficient alone, who is even said to be named from this, that without her power a woman does not cease to be a virgin?”

St. Augustine’s point is exactly the same as Paul. The Greeks (and Romans) had a god or goddess for everything, but in the end they never really knew if they were covering all the angles. Paul found an altar in Athens that covered them, just in case. It was an altar to the Unknown God. This is like the tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers who have died; it covers all those for whom the people had no names—foreign gods, new gods, hidden and mysterious gods.

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?” I don’t have the courage to be that kind of bold evangelist, but Paul did.

Word spread that he was teaching and preaching about a new God, so they invited him into the hall of theologians to talk about his teaching. Athens was a place of learning, of thinking, of debates. Everyone apparently engaged in the discussions, including foreigners. So Paul, full of the Holy Spirit, took the message of the Gospel to the people of Athens. He introduced them to the only God they need, the God of everything. The Unknown God is not unknowable; He is ultimately the only God worth knowing.

As usual, some came to believe, but others rejected what Paul had to say. Some thought he was ridiculous because he talked about resurrection, something that did not make sense from their point of view. He rejected their idols and told them that it was time for them to give up their silly man-made gods and turn to the true God. Some scoffed, but others believed and went with Paul to hear more.

Sometimes, 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?

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 we are encouraged to coexist with every different type of religion; every god has its purpose and place. There are religious houses on every corner, something for everyone. While diversity can be a good thing, 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? We’ll be called intolerant; we’ll be forced out of the conversation.

Peter reminds us that the persecution we face for doing God’s work in the world cannot truly harm us. Our Lord Jesus gave His life for us. We in turn are called to give our lives for His glory. The questions we face are opportunities from God to testify about the work of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit manifests in very real and powerful ways during those Godincidents, so we should be ready to give the testimony. That person might just be the next one God intends to save.

Peter was writing to a community that was being persecuted. The human response to persecution is often bitterness and violence. They were doing good things, but the good things were causing suffering to the faithful. They were afraid to do what they knew they should do. Peter wrote that they should have courage. The good works they were doing might be the very thing that brings on the persecution of society, but it was also their good works that would help the world see the Lord God. Instead of responding with anger, they were to respond with grace. Instead of fighting back, they were to be meek and humble knowing that they are doing what is right and good. In the end, the enemies of God’s people will be put to shame. This suffering may be the catalyst that will bring another person to believe in Jesus, and in this God will be glorified.

Are you prepared to share Christ, no matter what? Are you able to be gentle and respectful when those who question you about your faith are rude and malicious? Do you fear the repercussions of being witnesses for Christ, or are you ready with the answers that will plant the seeds of hope in another’s life? No matter what you face today, in your hearts set apart Christ Jesus as Lord. God is with us, of this we are certain because He has promised and is faithful. You are blessed to be a blessing, and in being a blessing you will be blessed.

Christianity is defined as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but it not only an individual faith. Our relationship with Christ is dependent on others. Someone shared the Word of God with us and we continue to share it with others. We need one another to stand strong, to accomplish the work. We worship in community, eat together at the Lord’s Table and in fellowship. We correct each other’s errors and encourage each other’s strengths. We help one another discern God’s will for our lives. We learn in Bible studies with other Christians, sharing our own ideas, doubts and questions so that we can help others and they can help us. Though our salvation is individualistic, we grow up together in the faith. When John wrote, “for he abideth with you” he said so in the plural. Christ abides with us in community. He draws us together. He binds us to one another. The Holy Spirit is not divided between all the Christians, but moves in and through us all who live as one body along with the Father and the Son.

It isn’t easy. The Christian life is hard because the world has rejected Jesus; how can we expect to be any more accepted? We need to face the difficult times with prayer. Unfortunately, we tend to save prayer for those moments of difficulty rather than approach every moment in prayerful expectation. Though we remember to offer praise and thanksgiving, we are more likely to cry out to God in our times of need. Caught up in the frenzy of the moment, we promise God anything if only He will save us. Vows escape our lips as we make deals with God, negotiating our safety and well-being in trade for some sacrifice on our part. We forget that the very thing we are praying for God to remove from our lives might just be the Godincidence He is giving us to share His grace.

Martin Luther was traveling down a road one day when a storm suddenly struck. Frightened by the lightning and thunder, he fell to his knees and cried out to God through Saint Anne. “Help me, St. Anne, and I'll become a monk!" He escaped unharmed. Luther’s father was a miner who worked very hard to put him through law school. The storm happened when he was traveling home from the university. He kept his word to God, entered the monastery, and in the process disappointed his father who had worked so hard to give him a better life. Luther’s relationship with his family was forever changed, but through him the Church and the world was also changed.

The psalmist for this week says, “Oh bless our God, ye peoples, And make the voice of his praise to be heard.” He 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. It is easy for us to look at that time of slavery and blame the Egyptians; after all it was Egypt that eventually rejected the relationship that was established in the days of Joseph. However, the psalmist recognizes that Egypt was never in control, that God knew full well the work He was doing in and for His people. This train of thought might be offensive to many people today, especially since we tend to think about faith as a very personal and private thing. We are also offended by a God that allows suffering in the world. There is no justification for a people enslaved and mistreated, especially if there is an all powerful and omnipotent God in control.

God hears our prayers and answers according to His good and perfect will. He doesn’t bless us because we’ve made a deal with Him at the height of our fear and excitement. He knows we will fail. He knows that we can’t live up to the vows we make in desperation. 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. Yet, He calls us to try. And He calls us to live in thankfulness and praise for answered prayer.

Peter gives us two tools to help us through the persecution we’ll face: 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, just have faith that God is with us. Jesus promised that He will not leave us as orphans. Jesus had to ascend to heaven, but He did not leave us alone. We might be afraid, but we have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is there to be our Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby. He will give us the Spirit of Truth, will be the words in our mouths when we have the opportunity to speak, and He will bring salvation to those for whom it is intended.

Jesus says, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.” The word here is often confused with the laws of the Old Testament. Should we live according to God’s Law? Yes, because God’s Law is best for people. It is best to honor our parents, to not steal, cheat or kill. It is good for us to be content; it is wrong to lie or bear false witness. And it is right to live with God as our Lord.

Jesus is talking about something different. We heard the context of this lesson in our text last Sunday. Jesus is talking about believing in Him. His command 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 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 their unknown God. 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 is always ready to receive us with open arms. We spend our lives seeking God, much like those Greek and Romans who wanted to assure themselves that they had all their bases covered. But 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 forever.

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