Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer.

I am reading a book right now that is fantasy historical fiction. It is the fourth book in a series, although it is actually a prequel to a trilogy I read. This book is answering some of the questions that came out in the other books, background that makes certain things more understandable. It is interesting because though it is fantasy fiction, I can see the real history that is under the story. The names of people and places have been changed, the events are not exactly as you might have read in a history book, but there’s a parallel to real life that has given the author an outline for the fantasy. This is true not only of the history, but also the religion. The author’s background is apparent in his descriptions of the religious rituals and experiences.

There is a character in this book that is well blessed by the deity; she often hears the whispers and follows without question. She’s had visions, knows the future and has a faith that is extraordinary. If she hears a word, she obeys, no matter what it might mean for her life. If find myself struggling with this character because though there is faithfulness to everything she does, there is a sense of pride in her obedience and an unwillingness to listen to what anyone else has to say.

Now, there are some voices that should not be heard; they are false and are spoken to guide things in a direction that is not true or faithful. They are greedy, self-centered and selfish. Yet, she constantly tells the other characters to believe in her because she has been blessed. It isn’t about faith in the deity, but in her. She’s had successes and has proven herself to be true, and yet there is something troubling about demanding faith in a fallible human being.

Our texts for today revolve around the word “shepherd.” The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and over the three years of lectionary we hear John 10. We hear how Jesus is the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation and how He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. In the end He provides proof of His authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe, they’ve been given to Him by His Father. The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23; it is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the LORD. The LORD provides. The LORD directs. The LORD leads. The LORD restores. The LORD guides. The LORD protects. The LORD comforts. The LORD feeds. The LORD anoints. Life under the LORD’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed.

We are called to be faithful to the LORD, to follow our Shepherd and to trust in Him. We will hear His voice and He will take care of us. I suppose there are those who are as troubled by our confidence in our own hearing. The world struggles to understand how we can be obedient to a fairy tale. They consider the story of our God as fictional as the book I’m reading. They think we are crazy, just like many of the characters in the book think the young woman is crazy. How can we believe that God would call us to do that, especially in this day and age? Tithe? Isn’t there better ways to spend our money? Church on a Sunday morning? Don’t you want to sleep in? You are studying the Bible again? You have read it so many times there can’t possibly be anything new to glean out of it!

We know, however, that God will use our resources in ways we can’t even imagine, that time with God in community is more than just a place to be and that the Bible will always surprise us with something new. Yet, we also know that there are people who make claims about God’s voice that are questionable. God will never call a mother to murder her children. God may call someone into a job or situation, but we can’t assume that He’s doing so because we will win. How many politicians look foolish after an election when they did not get selected after boasting that God told them to run?

We never know when God is calling us to do something but for reasons different than we expect. We are to trust His voice, to be obedient, to follow. But we must always remember that He is not leading us down the road we want to go, but the road He intends for us. That might mean walking through the valley of the shadow of death. The blessing is not found in God’s answering our prayers according to our desires, but in our trusting that God is in control.

As much as we want to believe that we are hearing God rightly, we must remember that we are imperfect and that we can easily be confused and tempted to believe what we want to believe. We live in a world that is full of noise. It is full of voices calling us to follow this path or that path. They want us to believe in their idea, to do things their way, to follow the path they think we should follow. That path is very often not the narrow path of the Gospel that relies solely and only on Jesus Christ, but is a wide path filled with options. People today prefer choices. They want the best of every religion. They want to believe what feels good. They want their faith to express their desires.

I once met a woman on the Internet who called herself an eclectic Christian. She didn’t like the narrow focus on Jesus, but thought He was a good person to emulate. She liked aspects of other religions and saw nothing wrong with picking and choosing what felt best to her. She said, “We all worship the same god, don’t we?” The answer to that question is, “No.” If you reject the parts of Jesus that you don’t like, then you are rejecting the revealed Word of God. He is the gate. He is the Good Shepherd. The false gods will not take care of you the way the Good Shepherd has promised; we should not believe in someone just because they claim they come from God. Even if they have proven themselves in amazing ways, our faith is misplaced if it isn’t in Jesus.

There was something very unique about the Christian community in Jerusalem that made strangers want to be a part of it. Luke tells us that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Unfortunately, today many congregations are failing and churches are dying; we certainly aren’t adding thousands to our numbers. As a matter of fact, too many of our new members are simply Christians who are coming from another place. The church is not growing from our witness, it is just moving around as people search for the Jesus they want to trust.

We have to ask ourselves what we are doing that is different than what they were doing. Are we trusting in God? Do we hear His voice and respond accordingly? Or, are we trying to get people to follow us, to go on our path, to believe in what we are doing? Are we trying to manipulate people by giving them what they think they want or coercing them with guilt or promises we can’t keep?

That early church devoted themselves to the work of God. They studied the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles, they gathered together for worship and praise, and they prayed. Do we do this? Yes we do, for an hour or two a week, but then we go out and live according to the ways of the world. Perhaps we spend time in bible study and daily prayer, but is it filling our lives with God’s voice to drown out the calls from the world? Do we spend time during the week encouraging one another with words of grace or by helping each other live the Christian life outside the walls of the church?

It is not enough to be Christian for an hour or two a week. It is not enough to spend time in the privacy of our homes with God. God calls us to be obedient to Him at all times, no matter what that might mean for our lives. I think that’s what Luke means when he talks about the early Christians sharing everything they had. The Christian community in Jerusalem was not a model of literal equality, but it shows us the need to support one another for more than just that hour a day.

I am always amazed at how quickly people respond when they see a need. A hurricane comes through a coastal town and people donate to Red Cross to help. Others load trucks full of water. Yet others go with shovels and work boots to help clean up the mess. We take casseroles to our neighbor when they lose someone they love. A charity needs a new bus to move students and the community chips in. We may not always seem as generous as we should, but when we see a need we are more than willing to help. We aren’t trying to make things equal between us, but we are share our “more than enough” so that others will have “enough.” They weren’t required to put everything into one bank account, but they were so committed to the Lord that they willingly gave up what was necessary for the sake of others in need.

That’s what the outsiders saw in the Christian community: a willingness to give to share with one another. It wasn’t forced or even expected: it just happened. When someone was hungry, someone else fed them. When someone needed a new robe, someone helped them get one. When each was comfortable, they ensured the others were comfortable, too. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community that doesn’t worry about money and resources?

What makes the Church unique is that it is one body, Christ’s body, working together to accomplish God’s Work in the world. And we don’t do it according to our will and purpose, but according to God’s. We trust in Him. We listen for His voice and we respond by faith with strength and everything we have. We might fail. No, we will fail at times. But if we continue to work like those first disciples, devoting our time to the teachings of the apostles, worship and prayer, then we will learn to recognize God’s voice above all the others.

See, it is easy for someone to claim they are speaking for God, but we need one another to keep us on the right track. We are imperfect, fallible human beings. We are easily tempted to go our own way. We want control. We speak and expect others to believe in us, but we make mistakes. The noise of the world can confuse us and send us in the wrong direction. When God speaks, He will confirm to us that we are hearing Him. It is not enough that we “feel” that we are hearing God. Does what we hear line up with the Word of God, the scriptures? Do others confirm what you have heard? That’s why it is so important that we do not try to go at this on our own. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us hear the voice of God and go on the right path.

In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole.

We live in a “people-free society” these days. The grocery store provides “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can order pizza on the Internet and rent videos from our cable box. And of course we have smart phones and tablets that let us converse with our neighbors without ever seeing them face to face. We text one another from the same building. We have more friends on Facebook than we have in real life.

We need to interact with other people every day, to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. Sadly, too many of us, myself included, get most of our human contact without ever being in the same room as another human being.

The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity; individuals easily get lost in the crowd. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians. Those smart phones and tablets have wormed their way into the corporate worship, as pastors even encourage the congregation to use their phones to look up scripture and send twitter posts about the sermons they hear.

In the beginning, the Church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.

Have we lost touch with His voice? Do we hear Him when He calls? Are we ready to respond with mercy and grace to meet the needs of those who are suffering in the world? Or are we following the voices of strangers? Do we trust the thief that claims to be the voice of God but who only wants to steal the gifts God has given? Are we willing to trust God even when we are suffering? Is Jesus our focus, or are we chasing after our own agendas, theories, expectations?

As we follow Jesus, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Even if we don’t think we have enough, we’ll be able to find more than we need to help our neighbors just as they will help us. This is the kind of community that others long to join.

So, let’s devote our time to the work of God, learning how to hear His voice through study, worship and prayer. Then when God calls, we’ll hear and respond with mercy and grace, just like Jesus, and our community will look a lot like that one in Jerusalem so long ago. The work we do might not be what we expect. It might be giving a grocery store gift card to a neighbor or helping rebuild a barn. It might be giving a little bit of hope to a stranger that lost everything in a tornado or providing the resources a charity needs to continue their work. It might be helping a fellow Christian hear the voice of God for their life.

The work God calls me to do will be different than the work God calls you to do, but together we’ll accomplish incredible things. And the Lord will add to the numbers daily those who are being saved.

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