Acts 2: 1-21


When the wonderful entertainer George
Burns “was seven years old, he sang with three other Jewish kids from his
neighborhood in ‘The PeeWee Quartet.’ A small Presbyterian Church in the
neighborhood asked the quartet to represent the church in an amateur contest at
a picnic for all the churches in New York City. The boys opened with ‘When
Irish Eyes are Smiling,’ followed by ‘Mother Machree’ and won first prize—a
purple velvet altar cloth for their church and an Ingersol watch for each of
the kids. George was so excited he ran all the way home to tell his mother. She
was on the roof hanging out the wash. He rushed up to her and said: ‘Mama, I
don’t want to be a Jew any more.’ His mother looked at him calmly and said ‘Do
you mind my asking why?’ and George said ‘Well, I’ve been a Jew for seven years
and never got anything. I was a Presbyterian for 15 minutes today and I already
got a watch!’ He held out his wrist and showed it to her. With perfect timing
his mother looked for at his watch then at him and said: ‘First help me hang up
the wash, then you can be a Presbyterian.’”

A gathering of Christians—and some Jews—can be a
joyful event like that! Indeed, there was such a gathering of Jews and
Christians ages ago, in Jerusalem, around the Temple, at Jewish feast called
Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks. The Feast of Weeks is the second of the three
major Jewish festivals (the other two are Passover and the Feast of
Tabernacles). The festival was observed 7 weeks from the second day of Passover.
The Festival is also known as Pentecost (Pentecost is Greek for 50 days)
because it falls on the 50th day (7 weeks is 49 days so the day
after is the 50th.) It was a time to thank God for the harvest, and
to offer the first fruits of the harvest back to God. The Christian movement
was so new that disciples still followed the Jewish festivals and Christianity
had not yet spread to other nations, until that fateful day when the winds of
change blew through the holy city, taking divide people and making them united
in Christ. In our day, the political climate can even divide Christians by
their political parties, and in these next few months the stand of red state
and blue state Americans can pull people apart even further if we let it.  In Jerusalem in the first century, there was
also unrest about government—particularly about taxes—but it was a more united
unrest. Yes, there were the haves and the have nots, there were divisions
between the rights of men and of women; and the rights of widows and orphans.
There were divisions then as now; but sometimes people let politics trump the
commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

We are experiencing the first tropical depression of
the season this week, and even though it was off the coast of North Carolina,
it created some dangerous swimming conditions some wind outside. Years ago in
Jerusalem we can’t say for sure that there was a change of weather in
Jerusalem, but we can say that there was the sound as of wind. When the sound
came, visually people looked different; they seemed to have a flame appear on
them that did not consume them. Think back: when did faithful Jews first hear
about a flame that did not consume something? Why it was when God came close to
Moses, when Moses turned and looked at a bush, burning that was not consumed in
Exodus 3. It was a theophany; a God thing; a message from the Almighty.  On Pentecost, after the resurrection of
Jesus, and the Ascension of Jesus, God was doing a new thing. God was giving a new message not just to Moses, but to
all who were there for a holy event; and a holy event they would get, just not
the one they thought. In our day some Christians misunderstand the power of
tongues: it is meant to be a uniting event, not a dividing event; it is not
meant to be about who speaks in tongues and who doesn’t: all Christians have
different gifts as Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. But on that day of
Pentecost, the gift of tongues helped people from all over the world understand
each other, it was not a man-made gathering with limited success like the G-8
Summit or the United Nations—but a God
event filled with God’s Holy Spirit,
to create a paradigm shift. Instead of
people from one country posturing against another country; or people from one
political party posturing against another party; or angry protestors being held
off by police in riot gear, there was a different wind blowing through the
city: almost like the wind of catastrophe that has, for brief moments in the
past, brought arch enemies together to realize that underneath their
differences, they are neighbors.  There
are some brief moments when the climate in America has gotten united: sometimes
it has been to defeat an enemy, but at other times it was to build up the
broken hearted. Pentecost is not a man
made thing; it is a God thing.

At the beginning of this service we sang “Spirit of
the Living God, fall afresh on me; Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on
me.” On that Pentecost day in Jerusalem so long ago, people who normally would
not speak to each other understood each other; people with different points of
view started to see the point of view of the others. Pentecost, was, and still
can be, a God day; a day of new beginnings; of fresh starts; and of new
understandings.  As our election year
ratchets up higher and higher, is it possible that people of different stripes
who love Christ can be baptized with the Holy Spirit as they engage in
dialogue? If so here are the characteristics we will be able to see in others,
and they will be able to see in us:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, and self-control. Those are the fruits of the Spirit of the Living
God according to Galatians 5. Could we, who are in the Spirit, start to change
the world with God’s love and God’s message? It will take a concerted effort by
spirit-filled Christians to curb the vitriolic messages that we are hearing
each day. Let me offer you some examples of people who have done that years ago
and recently.

Ages ago, St. Augustine’s own conversion to Christ
was hastened by his knowledge that God was working not just in Bible times, but
300 years later. And today, on this Pentecost Sunday, I declare to you that God
is alive and well today, more than 2000 years after Christ walked the earth.
God’s Holy Spirit speaks to women and men, youth and children, democrats,
republicans, independents, and people of every skin color. I have seen God work
by representatives of every group, just as understanding took place in
Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2. Television, websites, and radio personalities often
run news that sensationalizes. But I have read the blogs of thoughtful people,
and read the books written by others. I have heard the interviews of some faith-filled
people and known personally some others. There are God-honoring, Spirit-filled,
thoughtful, and well-spoken people around us. Look for them; listen to what God
might teach you through them. And you may come to believe, as I have, that the
Spirit of the Living God is alive among us. I’ll close with these
examples:  The late Henri Nouwen is one
who, I think, was Spirit-filled and thoughtful. He taught at the University of
Notre Dame, at Yale Divinity School, and at Harvard Divinity School, but he
left the academic world to live at L’Arch Community of Daybreak in Toronto. In
one of his reflections he says: “It strikes me again and again that, in our
publicity-seeking world, a lot of discussions about God take it as their
starting point that even God has to justify himself. People often say ‘If that
God of yours really exists, then why doesn’t he make [himself] more visible in
this chaotic world of ours?’ God is called to account, as it were and mockingly
invited to prove, just for once, that he really does exist…. The bitterness and
sarcasm evident in remarks of this sort show what’s expected: that God should
at least be concerned about his own popularity. People often talk as though God
has as great a need for recognition as we do.”
[SHOW ME THE WAY, A Crossroad Book, 1992, p. 83-84.]

Another famous example would be Mother Teresa and
how she devoted her life to the poor. But there are still other less known
examples. 1944 Corrie Ten Boom, Author of THE HIDING PLACE and TRAMP FOR THE
LORD, was imprisoned because her family had harbored persecuted Jews during
World War II. For that she spent time in concentration camps. Years later she
was approached by a concentration camp guard who asked for her forgiveness. She
struggled with the request. She had deeply resented the guard’s actions against
her and others, but she saw that, even as Christ forgave others from the cross,
those who forgave others were best able to relieve their tormented souls. She
forgave, for her sake and Christ’s sake. And she gained peace in her heart. One
other example from recent times: On October 2, 2006, a number of Amish girls
were murdered by a gunman at their school. It was a heinous and senseless act
that brought great grief to the families. But as the Amish father of one of the
girls who was murdered said about the gunman: “He had a mother and a wife and a
soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” Another Amish family comforted
the family of the shooter. One Amish man held the shooter’s sobbing father for
almost an hour. And more than 30 of them attended the funeral of the shooter;
in turn the shooter’s mother was invited to attend the funeral of one of the
Amish girls. As one person said, “The Amish willingness to forgo vengeance (and
offer forgiveness instead) does not undo the tragedy or justify the wrongdoing,
but rather represents the first step toward healing.”

God has given the world his Spirit: the Spirit of
wisdom and understanding, of counsel, and might and comfort. If we do not
receive and use that Spirit, can we honestly say we are following the Savior
who lived the Sprit-filled life so humbly and lovingly? What can you do
differently since you have prayed sincerely “Spirit of the Living God, fall
afresh on me?” May people know you are a Christian by your love in the days and
months ahead.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May
27, 2012




Acts 10: 34-48

Next January 20th, as in past Januarys, this church will host one of our most well-attended services: The Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans. Tradition states that the Scottish minister who became the chaplain of the US Senate, the Rev. Peter Marshall, instituted the practice as a way of lifting up Christ and putting aside any former reasons for feuding among clans. Because of their love for Jesus Christ, persons who otherwise fight with or even despise another family make amends and connect. Some Scots can be stubborn indeed about their historic feuds with another family, not unlike the animosity and bad blood William Shakespeare included between the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet. Even the old Presbyterian John Knox was notoriously hateful toward Roman Catholic Christians. Sometimes such hate, or partiality occurs out of ignorance or believed right belief. For example, Southern Presbyterians, from the time of the War Between the States to the end of the 19th century, owned slaves and thought that passages in the Bible sanctioned their actions. I was dismayed to read yet again about a group of white people this week that highjacked the Christian name in a misguided and evil attempt to declare war on people of color, arming their home as if it were an Armageddon last-stand compound. It is wrong to make it sound like Jesus would ever hate, or have nothing to do with, another person. The New Testament is chocked full of examples of Jesus, or people in his name, approaching and helping lepers, Samaritans, the woman accused of adultery, the Ethiopian Eunuch we studied last Sunday, and more. There is no room for such exclusivism in the name of Christ; Christ welcomes all: from the east from the west, from the north, and from the south, all are invited to the table of the kingdom of God. Yet we might back away with a morsel of permission for private organizations to be exclusive. Some golf clubs are exclusive by gender, and some were exclusive in other ways not long ago. There is the PGA and the LPGA of course. But professional baseball, basketball, and football among other sports have women compete against women and men against men. In NASCAR Danica Patrick is not the first female driver, but when one breaks into the field, it really makes news. Our country had some horrible times as integration was forced on those not ready to move in the direction of the mixing of the races. We have come a long way, but we are nowhere near the perfect love that God embodies and that our Savior Jesus exhibited so well. Even in the so called Holy Land, Israelis and Palestinians have a tense and sometimes hateful relationship. And in the growing Muslim world, there is not only intolerance for perceived infidels, there is intolerance for other branches of Islam; but lest we point out the splinter in our neighbor’s eye without noticing the log in our own eye, even Jews and Christians have the same kind intolerance for each other.  All of that background—of how few things are new under the sun when it comes to some attitudes—lets us know that what happened with Peter in today’s text is nothing short of a born again experience. Let’s set the stage:

Acts is a wonderful book that helps us watch the halting first steps of the baby religion called “The Way,” those people are later called “followers of the Way” and only in chapter 11 are such followers first called “Christians.” Just two chapters earlier in chapter 9, Paul is a confirmed Jewish Christian- hater named Saul who supervised the carrying out the first murder of a Christian; he supervised the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Peter, on the other hand, has been preaching Christ, but he firmly believed that no one could become a Christian unless they first became a practicing Jew!  These are two of the greatest Christians of all time! Churches all over the world are named after them, not because they are perfect; not because of who they were; they are famous because of who, by the grace of God and the powerful witness of Jesus Christ, they became. Paul, you might recall, had a spiritual meeting with the risen Christ one day on the road to Emmaus, and his life and attitude changed forever from that day forward. No one became a greater advocate for Christ than Paul who covered thousands of miles in his lifetime, sleeping in tents and in prisons, and traveling in the most primitive ways. To Paul we owe an exceeding debt.

Today, however, we are looking at the conversion of Peter, not from being something else to being a Christian, for he certainly was one of the inner three of the Twelve who was singled out by Jesus himself when Peter declared him to be the Christ.
”Upon this Rock I will build my church” he said to Peter regarding his declaration of his faith. But actually, Peter was like some Americans; like some Isaelis; like some Palestinians; and like some in every nation: he had his beliefs that had almost been set in stone; they were strong enough beliefs against another group of human beings that it could have been labeled as prejudice; he excluded Gentiles from Christianity unless they first became a Jew. Acts chapter 10, our chapter today, is the conversion chapter for Peter; it represents a paradigm shift for this premier disciple. First of all, Peter had a vision of a sheet descending from heaven holding every animal that Jews believed were unclean; a voice then came into Peter’s head that told him they were acceptable now. He could not believe his ears, but he gave respect and authority to the voice that he believed his risen Lord.  Second, Peter objected strenuously: “No Lord, I have never eaten anything so wrong and unclean!” And the voice said: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Peter was still perplexed; no one changes life-long beliefs about a race of people in an instant; some never change. But angels spoke to a God-fearing Gentile (or non-Jew) named Cornelius, who received Peter with humility and said they were ready to hear what God had told him to preach to them. Finally, in that moment Peter could have returned to his cherished stance of hating, or not going near Gentiles; or Peter could have received the words of the heaven-sent voice and given a message of love and grace. Peter became a vessel of God’s grace as he first mounted the pulpit there in Joppa and said these words: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality.” Jesus must have been overjoyed; his Father in Heaven might have had his heart gladdened; and his mother Mary, who had to adjust to enormous life changes, nodded her approval. Peter got the message that his Teacher and Lord had tried to teach him all his earthly days. But it took being born from above, having a new outlook on people: not an outlook that distinguished by categories or income or color or gender, but an outlook that saw others just as children of God. On that day in Joppa of all places, [a Gentile city,] Peter got it. The light went on in his head. Eager Gentiles lined up for baptisms and to be welcomed into the band of followers that others had labeled as Christians. That was a label they would keep.

style=”line-height: 150%; margin: 0in 0in 0pt;” align=”justify”>Today there are some good reasons—and some poor reasons—why we are categorized by age, grade or gender; some are called white collar or blue collar; some are in the armed forces and some are civilian. Today, the Spirit of the Living God invites each of us to seek to lay down our cherished prejudices, especially the ones that have become imbedded. Some women are doctors and some men are nurses, and some women are ministers and some men work in day care centers; some people with disabilities hold down full time jobs while some physically capable persons scheme to stay on welfare roles. Paul at one point hated Christians; Peter at one point hated Gentiles; can we start to look at others through the enlightened eyes that Paul got, and that Peter got; to see others as ones that Jesus loved, and that Jesus still loves. One day we may see what Christ already hopes to see: what Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans and other ceremonies try to say: that we are all different, and each unique, but we are united by Christ. Christ is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. And as the great Christian hymn proclaims it: “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth;” so may it be.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                            May 13, 2012



Acts 8: 26-40

Witnessing to others about the gospel of Jesus Christ has not been a sacrificial venture for many of us in 21st century America. Presbyterians often may take the “actions speak louder than words” approach to telling others about our faith. Few of us hand out religious tracts, or pamphlets, around neighborhoods and knock on doors; few of us stand on street corners with a sandwich board held high saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” But there should be no mistake about it: just as the unofficial slogan among higher education professors is “publish or perish,” the unofficial slogan for Christians is “witness or perish.” The Great Commission from the lips of our Lord Jesus himself in Matthew 28 commands us to do so: “Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” That is what we are to spread around the globe: the Great Commission; it’s like Christ’s final words to his loved ones as he departed from the earth until he comes again. Jesus laid that work squarely in our laps. Sometimes that work can be pleasant—like telling a new neighbor where you go to church and inviting them to come with you; or sharing with a new friend about the time you decided to be Christian, or the day when God’s amazing grace saved a wretch like you. There are other times, however, when Christians have had to take a stand that cost them their lives. We call them martyrs. Even some of the original Twelve Apostles, or at least 11, were martyrs, and the word “martyr” itself means “witness,” but it is a witness to the point of death.  In the 20th Century Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian martyr in Germany during the Third Reich when he would not put the fuhrer Hitler ahead of Christ. Our apostles’ banner that hung in our sanctuary from Palm Sunday through Easter had the shields of the apostles on it, most of which depicted the traditional way they were martyred. Witnessing happens in various ways.

Some of you have followed my Doctor of Ministry progress carefully and I am glad to share the work I do. For my July class, I have arrive at class with research done and a 16 page paper written on the history of Christian Spirituality from the death and resurrection of Christ until the present day. The paper will break up the history of Christianity into eight sections and describe the qualities of each era over the last 2000 years! As I have begun the reading I have been studying Gerald Sittser’s book WATER FROM A DEEP WELL: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. He reminds readers that Christians in countries today such as Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Nepal to name a few, all have people persecuted because they are Christians. Some of them are killed as martyrs, that is, they have refused to deny Christ when threatened with their very lives. “Much of the martyrdom we read about today”, says Sittser, “especially in the form of suicide bombing, is the complete opposite of the martyrdom that Christians suffered in the first few centuries. These modern [terrorists that are called martyrs]—if we dare even use the word to describe such horrific acts—bear witness to a God of vengeance, hate, and murder, not a God of love. The early Christians were victims of such hate, not persecutors. They absorbed violence; they did not inflict it. They were called to martyrdom; they did not force it on innocent people, which is what suicide bombers do today. In early Christianity martyrdom was only one way of many ways to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.” [Sittser, IVP Books, 2007, p 31.] In those early years of Christianity, the Roman Emperor Neron Caesar, among others, thought nothing of putting Christian men in the center of Rome’s Circus Maximus with a hungry lion for the sport of it, or setting tied up Christians on fire, attached to poles around the stadium, to light up the arena. Rome’s rulers demanded ultimate allegiance, some of them demanding to be addressed as “Lord and God.” The book of Revelation was written by John to address such horrible conditions of martyrdom. And from the first century on, the names of Christian martyrs, both men and women like Justin, Perpetua, and Polycarp, remind us that our faith was not forged in a field of flowers but in the blood of martyrs, those who would not deny Christ as Lord, just as our Lord Jesus shed his blood for us.

But not all witnessing, then and today, has such dreadful costs. Sometimes it is a joyful event when a friend has a great spiritual awakening and, in the language of some, “gets saved.” Sometimes it is the great joy of a church or a family gathering in a sanctuary, at a baptistry, a font, or at a river and baptizing a new follower “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes witnessing culminates with the waters of baptism rather than the blood of martyrs. Such was the case in Acts on one occasion. The Acts of the Apostles is a powerful account of the first halting steps of Jesus’ disciples, confronting others, proclaiming Christ to others, praying with others, or baptizing others. Today we have a baptism story. Today we heard this passage: Phillip, one of the twelve, heard an angel of the Lord instruct him to head in a certain direction. Have you ever had a very strong feeling to go somewhere, or call someone, or check on someone? Sometimes I think such urges, which often turn out to be timely, are heaven sent. “Arise and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” In his day and in our day, taking the road from Jerusalem to Gaza would give people pause. In Old Testament times the Philistines were in Gaza, the one who battled Israel in 1 Samuel and who put up the Giant Goliath against the only representative of the Israelite army: David. Gaza is the strip today where skirmishes break out, and it was, at its root, the antithesis of Godly faithfulness. That was not easy territory for an Apostle—on his own for the first time—to share Christ. But he answered the call of his Lord and started out. On his way he had the supreme test of Christian witnessing: he met a man of a completely different color, for Ethiopians were jet black; he was a man of high authority and training since he was what we might call the “Prime Minister” for his Queen of Ethiopia, and he was castrated too by custom to make him loyal to her. So he was loyal to the queen, and by his castration he was, by Jewish rules, prohibited from entering an assembly of the Lord according to Deuteronomy 23:1. What a test the angel had for Phillip! He was asking if he could be baptized! The Ethiopian clearly was curious about the faith because he was reading from the book of Isaiah, and he was wealthy enough to have obtained a copy! On that day, Philip passed the witnessing test, a test that Paul had to pass, and eventually, other disciples did too. They began inviting non-Jews to become Christians, and by that move, opened Christianity to the world, and eventually to you and to me! A man, a non-Jewish, exotic foreigner, asked if he could be baptized into
Christ. And Phillip did so.

Because of the blood of martyrs, and the good work of earlier witnesses, we have Christ to share with others today. But our children, and our children’s children, will not have Christ if we do not witness about him to others by our invitation, encouragement, our tireless work for others, and with our love. There may be a time when our children will need to take stands in the faith as well that are not easy or popular, so that there is no doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord of their lives. But today it is about you. Who will test you; an angel; a neighbor; a child with their unexpected questions? Where will you be sent; down a dusty road; into prison ministry; to care for those who others have forgotten; to another state or country; or into the dark of night? You and I each have our own ways to witness to our faith: be sure those around you know that Jesus is Lord of your life, as he is of mine.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 6, 2012