Sunday, May 4, 2008

Seven Easter
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Now they know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are from thee: for the words which thou gavest me I have given unto them; and they received them, and knew of a truth that I came forth from thee, and they believed that thou didst send me.

Our school district recently divided the students from one high school into two. We live in a high growth area and even with the split our high schools are bulging at the seams. The high school my children attend has been known recently to have a terrific football team. Football, as with all things, has its ups and downs. Last year the football team won most of their games. They even made it into the play-offs. Their good fortune would not last, however. The students were excited about another successful year. Unfortunately, they lost half their players to the other high school. The strongest players graduated and the team had not had time to rebuild. They lost most of their games.

It is important in football, as in all things, to build up people at every level of ability so that when the time comes for the best to move on to something else, the rest can step up and do as well. Though the coach did work with the younger players, they never expected to become so weak with the changes in the district. They weren’t ready to take on the other teams with only half the players. They didn’t pass on the skills and the knowledge to the next generation.

Faith has become an individual and personal thing. Many parents have made the decision to allow their children to discover religion in their own time and way. They purposely do not take them to church, not wanting to ‘brainwash’ their children to blindly follow a religious point of view that they have known. I suppose many feel like they were dragged to church each Sunday and they never saw its purpose. Too many modern Christians think the churches are filled with hypocrites and fakes. They don’t want to be part of the institutional religion that has had nothing but negative press in the past few decades.

They aren’t atheists. Some are perhaps agnostic, but many claim to be Christian. They simply prefer to live out their faith privately rather than in a community of believers. How many times have we heard “I can worship God on the top of a mountain or in a field full of wildflowers”? This is true, but Christianity is much more.

Many denominations are having difficulty finding people to become leaders, especially ordained leaders. There are probably as many reasons for this problem as there are people who are being called by God to serve in the Church. The high cost of school and the low pay for pastors makes it financially impossible for many. The expectations of a pastor, who is often seen not only as the spiritual leader of a church but also as a slave for the congregation members, called at all hours of the night with rarely a word of thanks. Whenever something is wrong the pastor is blamed. Some churches treat the pastor as little more than a hired hand, someone to be pushed around and expected to do whatever they say. Pastors, and other church leaders, get burned out. It is no wonder that others do not wish to follow in their footsteps.

The Christians who have decided faith is a personal and private matter has helped create some of this problem. While it is wonderful when a person later in life comes to realize their calling to serve the church, late ordination means those pastors can only serve a decade or so before they retire. However, who would suddenly come to recognize a call into ministry if they have not experienced the grace of God in the community of believers? It is certainly not a job someone chooses by their own will. I doubt that pastor is one of those positions that show up in the aptitude tests given to high school students. The gifts God gives to a minister can easily be used in other vocations like counseling and teaching. If we do not give our children the Word of God, how can they hear God calling them into an active life of living faith?

The scriptures for this week are for the Sunday following the Ascension which is forty days after Easter. In the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, Jesus spent time with the disciples clearly teaching the scriptures and telling them what they are to do in the world. For three years and those forty days, God’s Word dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new.

Faith comes through the spoken Word. This is what is wrong with the idea of allowing our children to ‘choose for themselves’ the faith they will follow. They can’t choose if they have never heard the Word. We can see good works and recognize a righteous life, but people will not receive the promise of salvation through good works or the right living of another person. Good works are not limited to those who claim to be Christian. Muslims, Jews, Pagans, even Atheists do good works. We must hear the Gospel to be saved. It is God’s Word that transforms, not our hopes or our actions. By God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the saving faith that God has promised to those who hear and believe all that God has said and done. So, we are called to continue to tell the story of Jesus.

Sometimes our children will reject the words we share. Saint Augustine is the perfect example. Now, Augustine’s mother was a Christian, but she married a man from a pagan family. He didn’t practice any sort of religion, even his pagan faith was in name only. Theirs was a difficult marriage because he didn’t approve of her charitable giving and her prayer life. Near the end of his life he became a Christian, but by that time Augustine was far gone, living a pagan and sinful lifestyle.

Augustine’s mother, Monica, prayed for her son. His father’s example was the one he followed. She never gave up. Seventeen years she hoped for his soul, speaking the good word into his life. She became a disciple of St. Ambrose and it was that teacher that was able to get through to Augustine. Her patience eventually found satisfaction when Augustine was baptized and enjoined into the community of faith. They did not have much time to share the faith together, since Monica died soon after his baptism. However, her faith and the faith of Ambrose were passed on to the next generation.

May 11th is Pentecost. On that day we will celebrate the birth of the Church and the giving of the great gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s people. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the gifts and the Word to share with others. During the season of Pentecost we will learn how to live out our gifts and calling in the world. We will learn how to be the Church. Today we are reminded that we are the continuation of all that Christ did in the flesh. He has passed the mantle of authority and leadership to us, not so we will live our faith privately, but so we will share our faith with the world.

Jesus prayed for His disciples and John recorded the prayer in our passage for this week. He prayed that they would stand firmly in the Word they have been given so that God might be glorified. The disciples were one with Him. During those forty days between the resurrection and the ascension they were one together—one body, one gathering, one fellowship of believers. However, when Jesus says that the disciples are one with Him, it is something deeper and truer. They are one with Him because He will continue to dwell in their hearts and come forth in their words.

This prayer reaches well beyond those disciples. The disciples shared the Gospel with the first Christians, and Christians have continued to share the Good News with every generation since. They were His because they heard the Word and believed all that God has said and done. So, too, we are His by that same Word, the Living Word that once dwelled among a small group of men but now dwells among all those who believe. We give thanksgiving and praise for those who shared that Good Word with us, so that we too might know Christ and live according to His Word.

The Gospel passage can be divided into two distinct prayers. In the first section, Jesus prays for Himself. This is not a prayer to be removed from the cross. It is a prayer that God will fulfill the purpose of Jesus life and glorify Him on the cross. In this prayer we are reminded of all the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of His life for us to hear. It is unlikely that these are the exact words that Jesus spoke, but they have been written by John so that we might know Christ.

The second half of the prayer describes the life that reflects the glory of Christ in the lives of the disciples. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those directly touched by His ministry and message while He lived in this world.

John portrays these words as spoken by Jesus because it is a message that is meant to be heard, a message that we are called to repeat for each generation. We relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father. Those good words become part of our own lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world.

Jesus spent three years with the disciples before He was crucified. Even as Jesus prayed this prayer, the disciples still were not sure of what He meant. He often taught in parables, speaking things that did not always make sense. After He was raised, He spent forty days with them, teaching them all they needed to know and giving them final instructions. He affirmed His promise of power from the Holy Spirit. In those days before He ascended to heaven, Jesus spoke plain truth so that there would be no confusion. The Holy Spirit would soon follow and He would continue to teach the disciples of Jesus and give them the faith to believe all that Jesus had spoken.

Jesus’ ascension left little room to question the nature of this man they had known for three years. He was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. Now He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but a promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. However, Jesus did not intend for them to wallow in the past. I can see the tears shed as they felt alone and uncertain about the future.

On this Sunday we stand between the Ascension and Pentecost. The disciples had been sent but were not yet gifted with the Holy Spirit. They went back to the upper room, the place where so much had happened over the past few months. The eleven, because Judas Iscariot was gone, went to wait for the promised helper. They spent the time in prayer, pondering together all that had happened. This was the beginning of the end of their time as disciples, but it was also the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to continue the work of Christ. Instead of just one man, there were now eleven. Soon there would be many more. The Word of God would spread quickly by the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples would change, but even more important: the world would be changed by the Word of God.

How we do this is an important question to answer. Though there are many who have decided to let their children find faith on their own, there are also those who feel that they have to force faith on others.

I once knew a woman who received extremely bad news about her health. She was quite passionate about her faith and had very strong opinions about the way we should believe in Christ. Her bad news made her desperate to convince people that she was right. She spent her last few months of life desperately trying to change the world to her point of view. She was so afraid that she would not have enough time to get the world to convert that she responded to debate and discussion with frustration, anger and condemnation. In the midst of her pain and confusion over her illness and impending death, she lost touch with the purpose of our faith and the grace of God.

We will die. Most of us won’t know the time or the place. Many of us will die suddenly, without warning. Others will become sick or old and will pass through a time of suffering. Few of us will be given the bad news that we have only a small time left. Few of us will be able to go about our business day by day knowing that tomorrow will not exist for us. However, all of live with the knowledge—even if we refuse to accept it—that tomorrow might never come. We could pass away today.

My acquaintance was an intelligent, studied adult. She had powerful arguments about her point of view and convinced many to think seriously about her perspective. However, when things went out of her control, she lost the joy of her faith and no longer remembered to glorify God with her witness. Her mission was not to give the Good News to the world but to convince the world that she was right.

Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. The congregation to whom he wrote was dealing with trouble. The secular world in which they lived and the religious world from which they came both rejected the message they had to give. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of God’s grace with another person. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them, going forth through it all with joy and peace.

They could have fought, and many thought that was the way to win over Rome and the Jews. But the stories of the disciples show us another way and Peter writes of humility and grace. We may not face the persecution that those first disciples faced against the Romans and the Jewish leadership, but we have our own troubles to face daily. How do we respond? Do we take bad news with force and go out into the world determined to make it fit our expectations no matter who we have to do? Or do we face our difficulties with humility and grace, knowing that God is nearby and that He is faithful to His promises? Satan wants us to become a lion, tearing through the world, devouring everything and everyone in our wake. Jesus calls us to be like lambs, knowing our Shepherd is near, humbly sharing God’s grace with hope, joy and peace.

It might be hard to live in persecution but it is not hard to share the message. We need only share what God has done, retelling the story that brought us into a relationship with our God. Psalm 68 describes the journey of God and His people from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. It was used in liturgical processions into the Temple. The people call God to arise to move while His enemies of God are moved by His power. The wicked will be afraid, but the righteous will rejoice in the presence of God’s glory. In the midst of this story, God’s people pray that He will continue to rule over the world and empower His people. The song ends in the sanctuary where God is glorified with the praise of the people.

The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of God’s power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.

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