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Matthew 28: 16-20


Twenty-six years ago, there was a beloved charter
member of this church named George Montgomery who was on the committee to
select their next pastor.  I was
the next candidate the committee brought in for interviews. For the first part
of the interview, Mr. Montgomery sat with his arms folded, eyeing the
twenty-eight year old candidate that they had prayerfully decided might be the
next pastor of this church. In his eyes I was quite young and was educated at a
northern theological school—Princeton! I later learned that he had a litmus
test that he asked every candidate, and if the candidate showed Biblical knowledge
by answering it correctly, he voted for them; if the candidate could not answer
his question, he voted against them. Here was his question that he very slyly
worded to me:  “There’s a passage
from Scripture that I can’t recall the wording to right now. It is Matthew 28:
16-20. Can you help me recall it?” To which I said: “It’s the Great Commission.
Jesus said ‘All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me. Go
therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all
that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the
age.’” And George Montgomery said: “I vote for him!” He became an instant
advocate, first taking Mary Ann and me out to lunch that day at “Down the
Hatch” restaurant, and second in become one of our most loyal supporters. But
more than that, he always
carrying out his ideas for getting visitors to church and connecting them with
Jesus. He, on his own, took posters to all beachside hotels that would let him
post them, offering free transportation to Westminster By-The-Sea Church, and
then he would, single handedly in those days, stop by every hotel that had
guests who responded, and drive them to church and back! What a way to share
the Great Commission! Yesterday I stopped by charter member Mary Hunt’s house
to pick up clothes to deliver to Mission Haven in two weeks, a kind of clothes
closest for Christian missionaries returning to the United States after they
have served in another country for a period of time. Mission Haven is in
Decatur Georgia. Helping missionaries matters to her and to this congregation.
For years Fay Murray and Flo DePrato coordinated our monthly feeding of
hundreds of hungry people in town at Halifax Urban Ministries. Now Herman and
Barbara Page coordinate that and Marianne Sabatka is our current contact person
for our Port Orange food pantry. We do all of that because we believe in the
Great Commission. And this week we invited and got forty children who are not
members of this congregation, to join us and the children of this church at
“Shake it Up Café” to learn about Jesus. We believe in the Great Commission. We
teach our children to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.
But I am so glad that one Sunday School teacher years ago also taught me the
“Great Commission.” Saying the Great Commission by heart is one thing; but the
next step is to believe it and the final step is to act on it. Our best worldly
witness is when our  actions match
our words.


When someone is going away, perhaps for a long time,
we tend to listen to, and pay attention to, their final words to us.  Sometimes it is a parent or spouse or
someone else special. This week we had a chance to say our final words to
children at the end of and eventful week together. With that in mind, we have
an idea of how the 11 remaining apostles hung on every word from Jesus! It’s
recorded in the very last Chapter of Matthew when Jesus was about to go to
Heaven. And when he told his apostles is called “the Great Commission.”
Disciples to this day honor Jesus by working to carry out these last words of
his. If you have ever dropped a rock into a still pond or lake, you know how
the ripples fan out, not really stopping until it hits the bank or edge of the
water. That’s the work of the Great Commission: it is people dropping a rock
into the world somewhere.  What
would the rock sound like? A child says to a friend: “I went to an awesome
church for Vacation Bible School! And I want to go back! Come with me!” The Great
Commission plops in the pond of the world. A couple is coming down the glass
elevator of a condominium on South Atlantic Avenue. They have on their church
clothes; another couple on the elevator has on tennis clothes. “Going to play
tennis?” the church couple asks to the other couple. “Yes” they say back,
“Where are you going?” the other couple asks. “We are going to church; and we
go to that one there (and they point out of the glass elevator to our steeple.)
If you would ever like to come with us, we’ll take you!” The Great Commission
just plopped again in the pond of the world. The first ripples started in the
first century Jerusalem; they rippled over to Rome, and to Asia Minor and
including a part of Turkey then called Constantinople. They rippled even into
Soviet block countries, for when Communism fell, the church still stood behind
the Iron Curtain. It still does. But it is decaying in some parts of the world
such as Europe- let those who have ears, hear! We cannot stop carrying out the
Great Commission of making disciples of all nations! Churches cannot function
just being architectural monuments to Christian past glories; churches are
people inviting, caring, teaching, and loving. Presbyterian Christians were
among those who did a great job taking the Great Commission to Korea in the
1940s, 50s, and 60s. Now the largest Presbyterian Church in the world is not
here, or in Scotland, it is in Korea! And Koreans are now sending ministers to
our shores to remind us how to keep growing!  Can you believe it? Korean Christians are now reminding
American Christian how to share the message of Jesus with others! It’s amazing!

Ten years ago I was interested to learn an Anglo South
African Presbyterian minister came to Orlando to pastor a church. When asked
why he would leave a large and growing church in South Africa to come to a much
smaller church in Orlando, he said, “Christians in the United States look like
they needed my help more than our growing churches in South Africa do! And so
he is making a difference in America now. 
Carrying out the Great Commission is the means by which Jesus intends to
change the world; and the speed and effectiveness by which we deliver that news
to all nations and people prepares our world for the day when Jesus comes
again! The work of that Commission is one of the main things we are to do! Last
week we baptized two adults and had two more reaffirm their faith. Next week we
will welcome other new members. And this week we hopefully introduced children
and parents to people who care about them, and invited them to come back beyond
this past week.


“Go into all the world” Jesus said. When he said it,
Jerusalem was the epicenter of Christianity; then Christian grew to have many
centers, so the ripples we make in the world’s waters by inviting someone else
to be a disciple of Jesus creates ripples that run into ripples. Invite others
to know Jesus, then let God’s Holy Spirit bless them and guide them. The next
thing Jesus said was “Baptizing them.” That’s not just for anyone to go out and
do; but it is for churches to give them a community in which to begin their
Christian journey; it gets new disciples beside other disciples to help mentor,
befriend, and help one another who struggle with issues of sin and suffering. Jesus
gave his authority
to his apostles
who he sent out with his urgent word. If we were to follow a faith family tree
back to the first century, what ancestors of ours ages ago might have been told
about Jesus by Philip, or Andrew, or Peter, or even Mary Magdalene? We have
Christianity today because people believe that the Great Commission was not
just for them; it is for all who are baptized in the name of the triune God:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And for those who are, the Savior who departed
out of the sight of the Apostles said something paradoxical: “Lo, I am with you
always, to the close of the age.” How can Jesus be with them, and us, after
he’s left the earth? Ah, the wonder of his Spirit makes it possible. We cannot
see him now, but we can see evidence of his presence and hear guiding words
that start from his heart, but are transmitted through the mouths of angels,
mentors, teachers, and even children. We are reminded of Jesus’ presence each
time we take Holy Communion, or have two or three people gather in His name. In
all those times, he is with us. We are not
alone. Thanks be to God!

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                June
19, 2011

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Acts 2: 1-21


Talking about the Holy Spirit on a day like Pentecost
is to remind ourselves that this is none other than the Spirit of the Living
God: mysterious, powerful, willful, counseling, sin-separating, and life
giving. These are qualities of the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit that came to
the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead according to John 20 and
Acts chapter 1. Let’s take a look at a brief history of God’s Holy Spirit as we
walk through the Bible today.

In Genesis chapter 1 we have the story of the
beginning of the world. We find God’s Spirit is there already, even in the
beginning. “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Then the
very same word for Spirit is used when the English translation writes “And God
said.” Spirit means wind or air, and while plenty of people can create
something out of something else, only God can create something out of nothing.
Not with God’s hands, but with God’s voice—God’s command—the earth was created!
So when it might make us uncomfortable to sing hymns like “Breathe on me,
Breath of God,” or hear that Jesus “breathed” on his disciples—in our world
such an activity would be distasteful— “breathing on someone else.” But in this
case it is an idiom, a manner of speaking, which means “God’s Spirit is
transferred from one to another on the wind of speech that is offered by the
power of that Spirit. So we know that God’s Spirit can create, can empower, and
can transform. What others gifts can the Spirit bring? According to Isaiah
chapter 11, there were originally six gifts of the Spirit recorded in the
original Hebrew language: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge of
the Lord and fear of the Lord. But ages ago in the second century, Jewish
writings—from whole documents to fragments—were gathered up and translated into
Greek since many more people read Greek than Hebrew. When that happened a seventh
gift, piety, was in the translation and stayed ever since. The candelabras in
most Jewish and Christian services have seven candles on them, just as ours do,
to remind us of the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit that Isaiah proclaimed in
chapter 11. Christians believed Isaiah’s prophesy accurately described Jesus as
the Messiah. Also in the Old Testament when the prophet Ezekiel describes how
God would restore Israel, God said in chapter 36: “I will sprinkle clean water
on you, and you shall be clean from your uncleannesses, and from all your idols
I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put
within you. I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a
heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit
within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes.” You will see many
images captured in those verses in our service today, including fire, and
water, and changes of heart. So the Spirit of God can renew people, and in
renewing people, God’s Spirit can restore nations as well. The Old Testament prophet
Joel once preached a sermon on that when he said the words already quoted today:
Joel described the day when God said “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
sons and daughters shall preach; old men will dream dreams, and young men will
see visions. Finally all those who serve me, both men and women, on them will I
pour out my Spirit.” Ages later in the New Testament, that day felt like it had
come-signs were everywhere!

First we find the Spirit of God entering Jesus at the
time of his baptism, his cleansing ceremony recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke,
and John. A part of God enters and dwells in the hearts of all those who are
baptized, when they ask God into their hearts. Some do that by inviting Christ
into their lives. But God’s Spirit stays when that Spirit is allowed to direct
your life, not when we
want to
direct our own lives and have God’s Spirit placed at our feet to serve. No: the
mortal follows the Creator to be in synch with the universe, not the other way
around. Oh if only our world would learn that, what a wonderful world this
would be!

Second, in John 14 we find the Spirit of God also has
the power to counsel
when we ask
for help, and to comfort
when we
are broken or lost.

And then finally, we come to today’s text in Acts 2. It
had been fifty days since Passover, which in that year was the same time as
when Jesus arose from the dead! Today this is that fiftieth day now since
Easter, so this is our
day of
“Pentecost.” And it is fireworks day for the Holy Spirit of God! It is show time,
not to set people apart, but to glorify God and to start spreading the Gospel
to all nations, not just to Jerusalem and the surrounding area! Like Facebook,
Twitter, and email today that go all around the world instantly, good news, bad
news, and damaging news gets shared immediately. In the first century God
provided a perfect vessel for transmitting the Gospel in ways never before
imagined. On that day, people began to understand each other after years when
self-centered or narcissistic ideologies and language barriers got in the way.
They began to really communicate and understand! It was after this Pentecost event
that something miraculous began to happen; something Spirit-led. Acts 2: 43-46:
“And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done …. And all
who believed were together and had all things in common…. And day by day they
attended temple together, breaking bread with others, and praised God. And the
Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Today could
be just such a new day for you. You can set aside old ways and start new ones;
you can take yourself out of the driver’s seat of your life and invite Jesus
Christ to sit there, and watch how a Spirit-led life can cause you to live life
differently. Some will not be able to do it; they may think about it initially,
but they’ll again want take control of their own destiny which in all
likelihood will lead to miserable choices. Go ahead and try to run things on
your own; but when you fail and are ready to try a more excellent way, the
Spirit of the Living God can fill you and bless you.

One more thing: there is a history of Christians not
handling spiritual gifts well; there have been times when people boasted of
having one of the spiritual gifts—such as speaking in tongues—which they told
others was the best gift from God. The apostle Paul reprimanded such selfish
use of God’s Spirit in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, chapter
12, and he said “there are a variety of Spiritual gifts,” and then he lists
them. He says we Christians should consider ourselves to be “the body of
Christ” with every part being important; we could hardly function if everyone
wanted to be the eyes, or the ears, or the mouth, or the legs. We need all the
parts to function well. Paul made that famous explanation and then turned to
his classic words, 1 Corinthians 13, 
that were not originally intended to bless weddings, but to guide misguided
Christians: “When I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love
I am as sounding brass or crashing cymbals.” To God’s ears and to the world’s
ears, fighting Christians just make a lot of noise! But when we accept God’s
Spirit and the powerful gifts that come with it, then we can put on love,
“which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Paul’s letter to the
Colossians) The Spirit of love can be a message to the nations that will invite
them to notice and perhaps even to change. With nations warring and plotting
evil against others, isn’t today a good day to use our Spirit-filled lives to
change the world with love? Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                    
12, 2011

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Acts 1: 1-14


Over the last several weeks I have taught parts of the
book of Revelation to my Wednesday Bible Study and to my Friday DISCIPLE class.
There have been many readings of that book that have lead people down a wrong
rabbit trail of rapture, Armageddon predictions on the end of the world., and
wondering about the beast. All of these extrapolations make money for people,
but fail to take seriously that this apocalypse was written for persecuted
Christians in the last decade of the first century. We know that over 80 % of
Revelation’s references are from the Old Testament, a fact that made it
understandable to the faithful people of the day. Things happened in the Old
Testament that make New Testament events more meaningful. For example, in II
Kings chapter 2 we find Elijah, one of the greatest of Old Testament prophets,
ascending into heaven in a whirlwind. The people assumed that at some time
their Messiah might embody the qualities of Elijah. We know also that when
Jesus gathered his disciples in the Upper Room as recorded in John 14, Jesus
was counting on his disciples to remember the marriage arrangements in Jewish
households to understand what would happen next. We know that like us, in times
of fear and sorrow, the disciple’s minds seemed to leave them. But we know from
Jewish tradition that the father of a man betrothed to a woman would take his
son away after agreeing on a bride price with the woman’s father. They would go
away until
a proper room was built
on the father’s house in which the new bride and groom would live—and while the
father and son are building it together, the father is deciding when to declare
that the room is done; he is also observing when he thinks his son’s level of
maturity and life training have readied him to be married. When he decides all
is ready, he sends his son back to get his betrothed. It is a time of expectation,
and the son always returns for his bride.


We are most glad that Scripture includes both Luke’s
Gospel and Acts. In fact we are quite sure that Luke actually considered Acts
to be the second act of his story of the beginning and spread of Christianity.
It is in Luke’s gospel that we get the picture of Jesus’ ascension, which is
different from his resurrection on Easter. On Easter, Jesus rose from the dead
and broke the bonds of death. Then he appeared to his disciples and to more
than 500 others in the days after his resurrection, until finally, it was time
for his departing—not forever—but until he comes again, in the same way as the
groom departs from the bride for a time to prepare a place for them to live, and
then, at a time only decided by his father, the son returns to join his bride.
The ascension is not Jesus’ departure for good; it is Jesus’ departure for a
while, and with purpose.  Let’s
unpack the ascension story today.


First, according to tradition there is a time of
preparation before the son returns to the bride (that we know as the church.)
That is described in verse 1 of Acts chapter 1. Referring back to Luke’ first
act that we call his Gospel, Luke says, “I have dealt with all that Jesus began
to do and teach until this day when he is to be taken up.” Jesus had
preparatory work to be done before left the earth. Verse 2 reminds us that
after his resurrection and before he ascended, Jesus had not attained the glory
that he would soon have; his powers were limited by his humanness, and thus it
is through the power of God’s Spirit that his instructions are given. That’s
why he says that Jesus “had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the
apostles.” Then in verse 3 we find out that the period of time between his
resurrection and ascension was said to be “forty days.” Forty day events have
been significant in the Bible. Not only was that number said to be the length
of time of the great flood in the story of Noah, it also was the length of days
in the wilderness that it took for Jesus to prepare for his ministry. Now after
giving his apostles the forty days of training, they were going to be sent out,
but only after they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells them that
John baptized them with water, but now they would be baptized with the Holy
Spirit. All was now finally ready for the grand exit of their beloved Lord. But
first there was this question in verse 6: “Will you now give the kingdom back
to Israel?” It’s a question that, in one form or another, has been asked by
Jews for ages. But Jesus said something that I wish predictors of raptures
would heed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has
fixed by his own authority.” (Verse 7) This isn’t news for Jews, or even for
those new Christians! There has been a lifetime of waiting, wondering, and
hoping about the messiah. And the time of the return is not known to people!
Why? Because only the Father knows and makes the determination of when that
time is right. Children sometimes have to wait for their dad or mom to come
back from a long trip. And families do a similar thing as they wait and hope
that their loved one in the military will be home one day. The actual day and
time of return cannot be anchored down with certainty. Neither can the return
of the Son.


Second, there is work to do until the Son returns. As
he rises into the air and disappears from their view (verse 9), the next phase
of their life is about to begin: witnessing. As Christ ascends to his Kingship,
(which metaphorically is called the “right hand of power”), the power to
witness is transferred into those on the ground; they were not commissioned to
stay in the upper room, or in seclusion. They had work to do, preparing
themselves, and the world, for the bridegroom’s return! They couldn’t let their
lamps go out (also referring to a Jewish wedding) they had to get the
invitations ready for the great banquet, a wedding banquet, when he returned!
They did not invite by email or engraved invitations; they did it person to
person, face to face. It is the one part of witnesses that has hardly changed a
bit over the years, and it is the best way: hearing someone tell another person
how Jesus became their Lord or how God changed their life cannot be disputed.
It is their
story, powerful enough
to change them. Hearing it could quite possibly motivate someone else to try to
trust God again, or for the first time. We in our day are also called to do
what they did: to invite, and to tell our faith stories.


Finally, before they set out joyously or purposely,
the apostles had to pray about their choice and their plans. So again, as we
symbolically do today, they gathered back together in the upper room, this time
with Mary Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ brothers, along with several women
according to verse 14. This was an inclusive group. And the Bible says “With
one accord they devoted themselves to prayer.” A.M. Ramsey sums up Jesus’ ascension
this way: when he ascended, he truly became King of all things; when he
ascended, he became the forerunner of those who could now follow him to eternal
life. And when he ascended, he became our priest, who intercedes at the throne of
grace and judgment for the entire human race. [A THEOLOGICAL WORD BOOK OF THE
BIBLE, Macmillan, 1978, p. 23] But let us never forget the traditions that give
us a clue about what comes next and what we are to do until that time: The
ascension of Jesus was just the beginning of the Father’s plan; the return of
his son for his bride, the Church, is sure to follow.
When? You don’t know; men who make headlines with
their claims don’t know; not even the Son knows: only the Father knows when. What
shall we do until that time; activities that perhaps could even speed up the
date of that royal wedding? Prepare
the first thing: putting on the garments of praise and of purity, discarding our
old and soiled ways. Preach
is the
second thing.
It is done with our
lives and with our lips, telling others about our experiences that made us
believers and followers. If our experiences are genuinely shared, others may
want to be disciples of our Lord as well. And finally we shall pray,
pray that our wills may be aligned with the will and
the ways of God. What a glorious day it was when Christ ascended into heaven!
And what a glorious day it will be when he returns! Some will just wait for
him; some will predict his return. But others will change their lives and
work for him and witness for him;; and that will make all the difference.


Jeffrey A. Sumner June 5,