Monthly Archives: June 2014

06-29-14 FEELING ABANDONED BY GOD?

FEELING ABANDONED BY GOD?

Romans 8: 31-35; 37-39

 

Two of our grown and married children each got newborn pups several years ago. One has a golden retriever and one has a black Labrador. What they were told when they got the puppies was that there is a window of time when training them would would be the most prudent and productive; the dogs would learn and retain what they had learned at their early age throughout their life. So Jenny and Brian, and Matt and Vicki, with the help of trainers, taught their young dogs how to listen to and respond to commands. Now years later, their dogs not only come when called and stop when told to stop, they are easy to have around. Another family I know got a black Labrador about ten years ago and never trained her. She was an unruly pup who grew into an unruly dog, chewing furniture, wetting floors, and barking at all hours. What a difference between one dog that was not trained and the two dogs that were trained. Early training made the difference. Children have minds and souls that are tablets on which to write, especially when they are young. They need good examples, proper teaching, and appropriate corrections. At young ages they are ready to hear certain stories from the Bible and they are ready to hear about their loving God! In high school my Spanish teacher taught me that the easiest time for a person to learn a foreign language is as a child! And the best way to teach a child is with what he called ‘The Nursery Rhyme Method” which is repeated sentences, often put to rhyme. In Vacation Bible School this week we tried to offer the best teaching that educators have taught us. But first our hats are off to parents who, perhaps in spite of their kids’ reluctance to be pulled away from a couch, a bed, or a TV, signed them up for this most important week; we had those five mornings to teach good values, good messages, and the reassurance of a good God. Second, our hats are off to the adult leaders who could have stayed home and kept with your regular routine. You said “yes” to something outside of your comfort zone and I think, if you look back, the week was worth that choice! Finally, our hats are off to youth who chose to come, many of who were Vacation Bible School children when they were younger, who now wanted to teach others! You bonded, you grew, and you learned along with us. What a valuable week to make an impression on children and their families! Even though we were teaching children, the same principles apply to them as they apply to animals: there is a window of time when children learn best. Our children were in that window, but the youth and adults learned too: they learned new stories, gained patience, offered grace, and the surprise of finding out you can do something that you put your mind to doing! This was a difference-making week!

 

Today I want all of you to be anchored in the lessons, verses, and stories that we taught this week. The title I chose proposed this question: “Feeling Abandoned by God?” For my doctoral thesis I met with people who did not exactly feel abandoned by God, but felt like God was far away, or that they could no longer connect, or they felt despair over losing touch with God. You may have seen the little refrigerator magnet that says, “If God seems far away, who moved?”  Vacation Bible School has been planting in children’s souls the sure presence and love of God: no matter who were are, no matter how different we seem or how weird we feel, God is with you and loves you.

We all learned this week that “Even when you’re left out, JESUS LOVES YOU! You should know that too! You can find Jesus backing that up in Matthew 28: 20 when he says “I am with you always, even to the end of the age!”  And the Bible describes what happened to a group of people who others avoided because they had a disease called leprosy. But we learned that Jesus approached 10 lepers and healed them in Luke 17.  He showed that God loves and cares for even those who are sick or different. Nothing can keep us from the love of God. That’s actually my text for today. Romans 8 when the Apostle Paul, who was once the Christian-hater Saul, said “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Wow! Paul made a list of everything that people might think of, and he said “No not even that will make God stop loving you!” God abandon us? Never. After the story of Noah, God put any thoughts like that out of the question. God will never forsake us.

 

The next day in Vacation Bible School we learned that “Even though you’re different, JESUS LOVES YOU!” We learned about a Samaritan woman who others did not want to be around. Instead Jesus not only went up to and talked to her, he listened to her and even madeherbelieve that he was a prophet! Then on the third day of Vacation Bible School we learned that “Even when you don’t understand, JESUS LOVES YOU!” The children were led into our “One of A Kind Bible Adventures” room and told the story of the Last Supper; we shared a piece of pita bread with them. But the part they didn’t understand was why we told them to take off their shoes and socks, and why their crew leaders washed their feet! We helped them feel a bit like like the disciples might have felt as Jesus washed their feet. The children learned about that special night, and they learned that Jesus came to serve others, not to be served. He taught his disciples by example. It’s a lesson for the ages. There is no length to which God will not go, to find you if you are lost, or to welcome you when you come home! Jesus told that in the parable of the lost son in Luke 15.

 

On day four we learned that “Even though you do wrong, JESUS LOVES YOU!” Children powerfully witnessed the Garden of Gethsemane scene, then the crucifixion at Golgotha. They heard the sound of a hammer hitting wood, and they learned that Jesus died. Then they saw how friends took Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb. I told them that I’ve done wrong things, like they’ve done wrong things, and that Jesus died to forgive my sins, and their sins. I wrote my name on the cross, and they did too. You can see the cross here in the sanctuary before you leave today. Even sins can’t separate us from God because of what Jesus did for us: he died for us to conquer sin, and then he conquered death for us when he rose from the dead! Children were encouraged to hear how to admit wrong things, and then to know that they can be forgiven.

 

Finally on day five we learned that “Even when you’re afraid, JESUS LOVES YOU!” We learned that the early Christians in the book of Acts were persecuted, and we taught the children that meant that people were out to find them, hurt them, or worse. The children came into our drama room in whispers, seeking to hide from people who were out to get Christians. One person like that was Saul according to Acts chapters 8 and 9. So as the crew members and crew leaders huddled in our darkened room, counting on one another for comfort, they heard footsteps! In walked Saul! It was a scary moment; what would he do to us? But Jesus himself, we found out, had changed Saul! The Saul we saw was not going to hurt Christians, he was going to thank Christians that a believer named Ananias had helped lead him to know Jesus’ love!  The children might have been afraid for a moment, but they never doubted that Jesus loved them! They learned that God will never let them go! God will never let you go either! If God seems far away to you, it is not God who moved! God has the light on for you, looking for you to appear in the driveway, or the doorway, or the pathway. God cannot wait to connect with you and always wants to hear from you. So today, if you never went to Vacation Bible School, or you don’t remember what you learned: remember what we implanted in the souls of young children and in those of willing youth and adults this week: you are loved, and you will never be abandoned by God! In your darkest moments in life, do not forget what you have learned here today. It’s not something that I’ve made up, but it’s something that Jesus himself showed, and that followers like Paul have taught, for over 2000 years. This is incredible news; it is sure and certain news. So most assuredly, it is the Good News as well! God is with us! We are not alone! Thanks be to God!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 29, 2014

06-22-14 PAUL EXPLAINS THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

PAUL EXPLAINS THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

Romans 6: 1-11

For my birthday in April, my daughter Jenny and son in law Brian got me a $50.00 gift card to Books a Million. Inside the card was this note: “To Dad, one of the only people I know who still likes to browse bookstores!” Sure I shop on line, and yes, I have a Kindle. But I still like books! Maybe some of you still like books and bookstores and libraries too? But what I notice when I go to the religion sections of bookstores stores (and it might surprise you, but I rarely do that), is that all of the confusing titles mix together in the religion section. There is, of course, Christianity, but also every other world religion, not always separated into sections, but mixed together. There are metaphysical books, new age books, Eastern Religion books, psychic books, and more. Often the Christian books I do find on the shelves are rooted in the fundamentalist tradition. As a trained Christian minister I have to weed through all of the distracting and enticing titles from many publishers to find the good writings. So I don’t envy those of you who, as seekers in the faith, get confused about what to buy and what will be helpful to read. Cara, Richard, and I are always ready to be a resource for good commentaries, good writers and good publishers. And the religious books that I am reading over the summer, the ones I listed in our June newsletter, are in our office if you’d like to check them out and borrow them since our church library is not fully functioning now.

 

These days, those who are from the so-called Baby Boom generation and younger, when surveyed about their religious preference, put down “spiritual.”  Fifty years ago people wrote, “Methodist” or “Catholic,” or “Presbyterian,” and twenty years ago many would write “Protestant.” But now more say “spiritual” whatever that means in their heads. The term “spirituality” actually gained popularity in America as far back back in the 1960s, and it has gained followers since then. In the 60s churches failed to say what was distinctive about being Christian; instead they tried to be too many things to too many people, forgetting what was distinctive about what Christ called his disciples to do. The church in the 60s tried to be the YMCA, the community center, the heart of social work, and a hub of social action while losing its biblical rationale to spread the good news and make disciples. Then the downturn of mainline attendance, in part because of fuzzy theology and negative press, contributed to the decline of churches. But churches today are not where they were in the 60s. Churches and church leaders are called to be guides for theology and biblical understanding, examples for living, mentors for young people, and welcoming communities. Some churches have failed in that charge. But today we are returning to a time, not unlike our times today in some ways. The master of interpreting and writing life as a follower of Jesus was the Apostle Paul. He teaches us what is Christian compared to what is not Christian. Paul taught (in the first century) things that we in the twenty-first century need to hear!

 

First, Paul “chose Christianity” after he met Christ in a vision. He was, by his birth, a Roman citizen. Rome was the cosmopolitan world that covered all of Israel, Asia Minor, Greece, and beyond in those days. Rome taxed, Rome controlled, and Rome allowed a wide variety of beliefs so long as taxes were paid and skirmishes were minimized.  Rome, like the United States, was a quite a melting pot of cultures and beliefs. Paul used his Roman citizenship on more than one occasion as his “get out of jail free” card! But Paul was trained as a Jew and rooted in Judaism. He was in the School of a great rabbi named Gamaliel, and so he knew our Old Testament, what he called “Scripture.”  He believed in it, believed in God, and fought people and authorized the death of people who deviated from Judaism. In Acts chapters 5-9 Paul, (then called Saul, and we’ll learn about Saul in Vacation Bible School this week!) exhibited some strong, even terrorist like actions, ordering the death of Stephen- a man who was teaching about and following our savior Jesus. Stephen was one of the early Christians that was called a follower of “The Way.” Paul knew Judaism and defended it viciously until he met the risen Christ in a vision on the road outside of Damascus. How the world needs Christ! Jesus converted Saul right then; he later referred to himself as “Paul” according to Acts 13. Jesus “chose” a man who had persecuted Christians to be the main evangelist of the Christian faith! Who but God would choose a Jew to become the first and perhaps the best Christian? Like religion sections of those bookstores, Paul’s world was filled with secular teachings and those of many kinds of religion. But Paul especially knew the religion of the one true God as he fell to his knees and became a Christian. He was well versed in knowing what others believed, and he began stating instead what a Christian believed. He did that in many of his letters, but his finest work was the book we call Romans. It was his defense of what became known as the Christian faith. And we get to read what he wrote. Paul chose Christ; then he spent his life explaining the Christian Faith.  Those who browse websites or bookstores would do well to ground themselves in their Bibles; more specifically in their New Testaments, and most specifically in the book of Romans. Notice I did not say in “the gospels;” of course they are important. But they are four witnesses or testimonials of the life and ministry of Jesus, sometimes offering different accounts. Go there later; start with unequivocal Christian beliefs; start with Romans. And one good place to start is Romans chapter 6.

 

In Romans chapter six, first century persons are helped, but so are twenty-first century persons! Paul is showing how Christianity is different from other beliefs (in our day, different from other forms of spirituality).  He starts by acknowledging sin, something that even some modern churches sometimes avoid. Paul then acknowledges the crucifixion of Jesus; some new churches avoid using crosses because those who attend have said they are a “turn-off,” so these churches sell the soul of Christianity on the altar of attendance. Paul acknowledges grace, but only after the acknowledgment of our personal sins. Baptism lets our sins die on the cross of Christ (something else that will be powerfully demonstrated at our Vacation Bible School) and reminds us that just as Jesus arose from death, we can arise from sin and death to “newness of life.” Christianity is about new life, after we remember what and who paid for that new life! This is New Testament Christianity; it cannot be modernized.

 

Most importantly, Paul makes a distinction about what happens after death. The Greek idea, enveloped by the Roman world of Paul’s day, was the “immortality of the soul.” It stated that a good soul was incased in an evil and carnal body. The body was temporal, and one day would fall away (they said) and the good soul would never die, but will keep living forever in eternity with the gods. That is not Christian. Some Jews believed that life ended at death. That is not Christian either. Some Jews believed that whole people, physical body and all, could be taken up into heaven like God did for Elijah. That is not Christian either! See how confusing our internet or our bookshelves can be to the untrained minds? And eastern religions are proponent of reincarnation. Fine people may believe that, but it is not Christian.  The only example of Christian belief is resurrection, and it is outlined here in Romans 6. Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead; he really died, it was no act. And from that death, life arose. (That’s why the Apostle’s Creed affirms that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.”) Jesus’ tomb was empty and people could touch his wounds. He bodily arose from the dead. For all of his followers, when we die our bodies revert back to the dust from which they came, a belief that Jews acknowledged but without resurrection in Ecclesiastes 3:20 “All are from dust; and all turn to dust again.” But because of Christ, says Paul, we will be raised to newness of life, not as souls, but with our spiritual bodies. Later in First Corinthians 15:50, Paul said “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” If you are not grounded in this Christian understanding, do you see how confusing titles on the Internet, or in a library, or in bookstore can be? If you are not anchored in your beliefs, the winds of titles and other teachings can make you drift from the solid rock of Christ! Paul puts it this way in Romans 6:  “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….For if we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.”

 

Paul is the brilliant New Testament teacher of the Christian faith. We have no other who is before him except Christ himself. And even Paul expounds further on the idea of Christian resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in the twinkling of the eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound (trumpets were always sounded to make major announcements in biblical times) and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed….Death is swallowed up in victory.”

 

There are so many philosophies on the Internet, in libraries, and on bookshelves. Ground yourself first in the Christian teachings if you are, or seek to be, a Christian. Then the day of resurrection will be a glorious meeting with your Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 22, 2014

 

 

 

06-15-14 THE GREAT COMMISSION

THE GREAT COMMISSION

Matthew 28: 16-20

 

When I was growing up- between the ages of 3 and 10 years of age- we attended Trinity Methodist Church in Richmond Virginia. As many churches do, we sang our opening hymn today, “Holy, Holy, Holy” fairly often. I believed, at that young age, that we were singing praises about my church! Here is what we sang in two of the four stanzas: “Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” I thought it was about our church, which we called “Trinity!” Of course, it was not; it is about one of the most unique doctrines of the Christian church, one that has been under attack and scrutiny through the years, and is being challenged and ignored even today. There is a reason that the new hymnal committee made “Holy, Holy, Holy hymn number one: It begins an understanding of God that is unique to Christianity. Yet today in our world there are those who seek Christian Spirituality without the knowledge of or the belief in the three persons of God. Some in our day say that Jesus was a prophet, and some say he was a man of higher consciousness, but, they say, he was certainly not the only begotten Son of God or Divine. To believe that, my friends, you could very well be a Jew or a Muslim; both faiths believe in God as Christian spiritualists may profess to, but Jesus is not Christ or Son of God to them. That’s the way some fringe groups that still call themselves Christian believe. But what is unique about Christianity is calling the Jesus “Lord” and “Savior,” the one who gave us the Great Commission. Jesus is the Christ—not just a good man; not just a prophet. It is Jesus himself who is issuing the Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28; it is Jesus himself, not some later priest or pastor, who tells us to make disciples and to baptize not in his name alone, nor in the name of John the Baptist; he tells us to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is the Trinity; this is Christian; it extends the powers of God far beyond those who picture God in Heaven alone.

 

In our day Jews fortify their faith and their holy lands with an arsenal of weapons. They believe they must do that. But Jews do not proselytize, that is, try to convert others to Judaism. Then there are Muslims. Peace loving Muslims all over the world live in co-existence with brothers and sisters of others faiths, but radical Muslims, in the news most often, are out to take over other nations and command that they convert to Islam. ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is one such radical group that has shaken the world this week. By contrast Jesus has a powerful, but not a coercive, Great Commission. It is found in our text today.  “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me.” That claim echoes Daniel 7: 13-14 when one as the “Son of Man” came to judge the kingdoms of the earth. It also lets readers of the Bible know that Jesus claims the power from God over worldly empires and over Heaven: a much bigger claim than what Satan wanted to bestow on Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4:8-9. The risen Christ has all the authority that God in Heaven ever had, and all authority by God (not by Satan) on Earth as well. By saying that, Jesus claims ultimate authority in this text.  With that authority, he gives his imperative: “Go.” It is not to sit, it is not to just pray about, it is not to form a committee to study; it is GO! And so we go. Not just the 165 Presbyterian missionaries in countries around the world, but all us too, as we go to our neighbors and invite them into a relationship with Jesus as Savior. Savior: that’s a key Christian belief too that is getting trampled in the muddy theology of our day. If you do not actually believe that Jesus dying on that cross outside of the Jerusalem walls does not save the soul of believers, then you cannot call him your Savior; instead, you step outside of Christianity and call him a great thinker or a wonderful man, but neither title gives him the power to save a soul or the world.  But if you DO believe him to be Lord and Savior, then this commission is for you: “Go and make disciples.” How do you do that? Of course you first go not just as a bystander but as a witness. In some way Jesus Christ has entered and saved your life: tell that story, no matter how tame it may seem. Others will connect with you. Then invite them here to your church where they can be instructed and welcomed, and be invited to commit or re-commit themselves as Christians. Jesus was about inviting others to call him Lord, not require it. There are some dark times in history when Christians tried demanding conversions, such as in the Crusades. They later repented and changed. We invite; we implore; but we do not demand. That is the loving but urgent nature of Jesus’ Great Commission. So we are to make disciples “of all nations.” In Jesus’ name and through our mission dollars, we are doing that. In some nations we need to re-double our efforts. But in our schools and neighborhoods we can also do the work of Jesus so that people can see that we are Christians by our love, our desire for justice, and through our compassion. How badly the world needs Jesus right now! Finally in this passage Jesus tells us to baptize: over the ages just having other untrained human beings baptizing others led to a corruption and misunderstanding of what Jesus told disciples to do, so the church said that people who have studied this text and others—priests and ministers—should do it with proper instruction.  It is in the name of the Trinity, outlined right in verse 19, that we baptize. Why? The man who taught my doctoral New Testament class, Dr. Stan Saunders, put it this way:

Baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit means the embrace of God’s rule of healing and restoration, the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and the renewing force of the Spirit loosed in the world. The disciples are to “teach” as Jesus taught them, in both word and deed ….

 

By accepting the Great Commission, the disciples were reminded that the cross may loom before them as it did for Jesus. And the same holds true for us. The message and theology of Christ can feel subversive to many worldly people or to people of other faiths.  “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Those are the words of your Lord if you are a Christian. We need not shy away from them. The words teach us that God in Heaven, God in Christ, and God on earth through the Holy Spirit is grander, more awesome, and more powerful than a god some other faith can claim. This is huge; but it gets watered down if you say that God was not uniquely in Christ and is not powerfully at work today through the Spirit. We have the most powerful, and the most accessible God, but not if we just say Jesus was a good or brilliant man or a man of higher thinking. He has to be more; he is more!

 

Back In 325 A.D. there were those who challenged the idea that God was fully in Christ, and that Christ was fully human as well. It was a huge challenge, squelched by the writing of the Nicene Creed and later the Apostles’ Creed.  And the challenge has come up before and it is here again in people trying to say they love Jesus but have not claimed what it means to be a Christian: to say that Jesus is your Lord and your Savior, not just a marvelous man. Traditional churches affirm that. In the traditional hymn “Come Thou Almighty King,” the first verse is about God the King; the next about God the Incarnate Word (Jesus); and the third verse about the Holy Comforter (the Spirit.) Classic Christian beliefs. In some contemporary music you will find it as well. In one of the Newsboys’ most recent Christian songs called “We Believe,” they sing these words:

In this time of desperation

When all we know is doubt and fear

There is only one foundation

We believe, we believe

In this broken generation

When all is dark, You help us see

There is only one salvation

We believe, we believe

 

We believe in God the Father

We believe in Jesus Christ

We believe in the Holy Spirit

And He’s given us new life

We believe in the crucifixion

We believe that He conquered death

We believe in the resurrection

And He’s comin’ back again, we believe

 

So, let our faith be more than anthems

Greater than the songs we sing

And in our weakness and temptations

We believe, we believe!

 

Let the lost be found and the dead be raised!

In the here and now, let love invade!

Let the church live love, our God will save

We believe, we believe!

And the gates of hell will not prevail!

For the power of God has torn the veil!

Now we know Your love will never fail!

We believe, we believe!

 

 

 

 

Love people of every faith; invite people who have no faith or an uncertain faith to come and find out if they can claim Jesus as their Savior! We have a great God, a Saving Lord, and God’s Holy Spirit with us even now! What a commission Jesus proclaimed! Let us tell the Good News with our life, and with our lips.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 15, 2014

 

06-08-14 A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS

A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS

Acts 2: 1-18

 

On my computer, and perhaps on yours, there is an icon I can click that will allow me to restart my computer. Sometimes on my old computer, it seemed to get so filled with files opened that it would freeze. No button could get it to move; no amount of sitting would get it to go again. So I would have to push the restart button, and about 3 minutes later I’d get my computer working again. That’s partly why I bought a new computer, because my old one began to freeze daily. A reset button is handy to have on a computer. In golf, at least in friendly games, they offer a do-over on the first tee called a “mulligan” if the first shot is botched. In children’s games when someone doesn’t like the way things are going they might call out “do-over” and hope to re play that last match, or point, or round. Ah do-overs; what a nice world it would be if we all got do-overs especially when we learn what a problem our rash or spontaneous decision caused. But as we age, around the time we hit our 20s, the brain in most young adults has formed the part that understands consequences. Back in our teenage years, parents were charged with protecting and guiding us enough that we would not make some lethal or dreadful mistake that would change our life forever. In fantasy, writers have come up with scenarios where a portion of a person’s life is lived over until they learn something or do something that is prescribed. It happened to Bill Murray’s character in the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” and it will happen in the new Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”  But realty says life doesn’t have actual reset buttons; we can get forgiveness-yes; we can get another job if we ruin our last one; or move to a second relationship if we ruin our first one. But we don’t get a reset. What we do get is a new day! Today is new from yesterday; and tomorrow will be new compared with today! We do get chances to take another run at life with perhaps some sleep, or thought, or prayers, or all three.

 

Today—Pentecost—is a day of new beginnings. Let me tell you about this under appreciated day. This holiday has had three names over the years.  For Jews this was the last day of the Feast of Weeks, a time that began on Passover. On this day the first fruits of the harvests of the people were presented in their synagogue or the Temple. The Biblical concept of a tithe comes from the first fruits belief that everything we have is God’s and if we give the first portion (10%) back to God in thanks, then God will bless those people with more gifts. The second name of this Holiday is Pentecost, which in the early church was the second highest holy day second only to Easter. Christmas was, interestingly, a distant third. Pentecost was, as before, the 50th day after Passover, and in our day, after Easter. It is a day, promised by our Lord Jesus, when disciples who were waiting for power to arrive from on high had that power arrive in a mighty way: Like a rush of wind, as the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem with others, they heard people from other countries speaking in such ways that they could understand! Indiscernible words became understandable! They felt empowered on Pentecost where before they felt incompetent and ill-equipped. The final name for this day was created around the 4th century: Whitsunday, likely because Pentecost became a secondary day for baptisms, the first choice being Easter. So those who were baptized on that day would be dressed in white robes to symbolize their spiritual cleansing. Only later was the color changed to red, a symbol of the flames of the Spirit.

 

Sometimes people get confused about what God’s Holy Spirit is supposed to do for us. According to Isaiah chapter 11, the traditional Gifts of the Spirit are “piety, wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.” Seven gifts of the Spirit. That’s why our candelabra have seven candles. But in the New Testament, especially in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the “Gifts of the Spirit” term differently and says that the Spirit gives Christians the gifts to be apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, and administrators. Again seven gifts! But to muddy the waters more, there are also qualities in persons who are said to be a true Christians, demonstrated by their actions. They are called “The Fruit of the Spirit” and there are nine of them: “love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.” Today I hope the Spirit of the living God will fall afresh on you, either empowering you, changing your temperament, or changing the trajectory of your life. What are some things that God’s Spirit might be able to change in your life beginning today?  Your temperament; the direction of your life; your scars into stars (as Robert Schuller used to say), or something else? Here are some examples where God’s Spirit and a human event may give you a chance for a new beginning:  many students have just graduated from one grade and are either moving to the next grade, or their next school, or are looking for a job. They have a great chance to begin living their lives differently. Some of our church members had their daughter get married yesterday; that new couple can have the chance to honor God and live a new loving life beginning today. Fifteen Westminster Disciple class members graduated from 34 weeks of study on Friday and now are commissioned not just as Christians—they were already that—but as disciples: they may be living differently today. And you yourself might keep learning from Jesus and also serve and witness to others. One week ago four youth in our church publically affirmed their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior and now are beginning a life that spiritually is very different from the one they were living a year ago. They spent a school year with Mary Ann and me learning about and forming their faith. Our youth and Cara will return from a memorable weekend together!  Church retreats and camps have changed plenty of people over the years. And in one month youth missionaries and adults will leave our parking lot to change people’s lives in South Carolina. Mission trips can be a week of new beginnings. Some here today may be considering a new way of living that includes a public change from being a Christianity bystander to being a Christian! Currently 8 people will be having a day of new beginnings next Sunday when they join this church, and you can too. And then this week on Facebook I learned that the young mother in our church who, several years ago, had uterine cancer and prayed to God for healing has not only given birth to three beautiful girls, she is now cancer free! What a new day she’s been given!  On another note, it is right that our nation paused to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day on Friday; D-Day changed our world. But did you know that 80 years ago last week a group of Christians in Nazi Germany stood up against the madness of their Fuhrer, declaring they would honor him as Jesus honored Caesar, but they would not call him their Lord o give him allegiance above God. There were some German Christians who listened to the drumbeat of their leader, and they, in mind-numbing lock step, annihilated Jews in a horribly misguided attempt the strengthen and purify a Christian race. Instead, in a document in our Book of Confessions called “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” other thoughtful Christians declared that God alone should receive their highest devotion, that Jesus Christ was their Savior, and only then would they honor their Fuhrer. Adolph Hitler would have no part of that stand and imprisoned a number of Christians who stood against him. Among them was Dietrich Bonheoffer. He took his stand against Hitler and the Nazi party, eventually losing his life in a concentration camp. But his stand and the stand of others changed the course of human events.

 

Sometimes events in our lives are more wonderful and less dramatic. A birth; a marriage; a profession of faith; a graduation; an illness; a tragic accident, a death; a conflict, or a resolution of a conflict. These too give us a chance to make different choices than we made the day before. The disciples had little idea on the day before Pentecost what Pentecost would bring. Americans on September 10th 2001, or on December 6th, 1941, had no idea how their lives would change on September 11th and December 7th. Sometimes we change things in our own lives; and sometimes we feel or see God doing something extraordinary in our world; while at other times nature brings on changes; and at still other times evil or accidents break in. Why not be in relationship with Jesus today since we know not what tomorrow brings? Why not ask for the comfort and counsel of God’s Holy Spirit to be at work in your life today, at the ready, so that when something new or dreadful happens, you will have the powerful resources of God at hand? Why be just a Christian bystander, or a person who bobs through life like a cork on the ocean, or blows through life like dry dandelion seeds?  Anchor yourself in the God who created you, who redeems you in Christ offers you forgiveness, and who empowers you through his powerful Holy Spirit! Then, in the seasons, events, and calamities of life, you will be ready. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 8, 2014

 

06-01-14 JESUS’ PRAYER FOR YOU

JESUS’ PRAYER FOR YOU

John 17: 1-11

 

Since March of 2013, the world has been interested in and intrigued by the man known as Pope Francis. As a Pope of the people, he has kissed the face of babies and the hand of lepers; he has washed the feet of strangers and has become a fresh face at the Vatican. He has largely been received by the masses with great love and joy.

 

Back in 1986, when there was no new pope, a film about the death of one pope and the election of just such a man made for a most wonderful film. Called “Saving Grace,” the thoughtful, honest, and Jesus-like portrayal of the pope was portrayed by Tom Conti. The film is hard to find. But let me tell you why I bring it up. The new pope in the film, something like the new pope of today, feels frustratingly locked away from the people he loves, safely behind the Vatican walls and meeting  people in highly coordinated meetings called “audiences.” He longs to be in touch with the people again as he was when we was a mere priest. Later, through a series of events that are both amusing and endearing, he does indeed find himself helping a depressed small village where, with old clothes on, no one knows he is the pope: except one man. The village is called Montepetra and he starts to thrive by doing what Jesus would do while the Vatican cardinals are going mad thinking of things to tell the press about why the pope has not made any public appearances in weeks!

 

Early in his role as pope, the newly elected leader of the Roman Catholic church is disturbed by a mother’s request. She waits her turn to have an “audience” with the pope so she could bring her terminally ill daughter for him to perform a healing miracle on her. “You heal her!” she pleads. The pope places his hand on her head, says a few silent words, and makes the sign of the cross over the sick little girl.  “You healed her?” her mother asks hopefully.  To which the pope says, “I hope she feels better.” The mother then scowls and says sternly back “You are the pope, God’s chosen; you make a miracle happen!” The young and honest pope replies, “I cannot make a miracle; I can only pray for one.”

 

The mother had made a long journey to find her best chance of getting a healing prayer. But even the prayers of the pope were not a guarantee. You and I would want the best chance for healing too if our child or our best friend was sick, wouldn’t we? And while some Christians might use every inside track that they have at their disposal, like prayer beads, or praying to Mary, putting a name on our prayer list or Knee Mail, praying in church or finding a pastor to pray with them, each of us try what ever might work. Sometimes I go in our Rose Chapel to pray, where our Contemplative Prayer services are held weekly. I go there not because I think God is more there than in my home or my office; I go there because I can put aside the distractions of life and concentrate on prayer to God. I believe in prayer, not as magic, but as verbalized requests that God wants to hear.

 

Today I asked the children if they were sick and could have anyone they could think of praying for them to get better, who would that person be?

And then I let them know, as I tell you, that even Jesus prayed for his disciples, and for the world. Since he died not just for those who knew him in the first century,  but for all who believe in him, his prayers extend to us as well. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, put it well in a verse of his hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” He described Jesus as “the right man on our side; the man of God’s own choosing.” That’s right. Even Jesus prayed for Martin Luther, he believed. And today we get to see his actions and hear his words through John 17. Today Jesus takes on the role not only of guiding and redeeming us, but also being our advocate, pleading our prayerful case before his Heavenly Father. When you are in court, you are there with an advocate called an attorney. You can also have the same in your prayers. Enlist the help of the one seated at the right hand of the Father when you need to feel certain your case is heard.

 

If prayer is hard or awkward for you, then let Jesus, in John 17, teach you about prayer. First Jesus demonstrated that he himself prayed. In front of his disciples, not to be showy but to teach them, he prayed for them. In the Lord’s Prayer he taught followers how to pray. Never forget that even Jesus prayed for others; do we have reason to believe he would no longer do that?  Pray to God as you choose, but do it through Jesus so that “the right man will be on your side” as he was on the side of Martin Luther. Thomas a Kempis, the 15th century Christian in his classic book The Imitation of Christ, wrote:

 

It is a great art to know how to live with Jesus, and great wisdom to know how to hold him. Be humble and a [person] of peace, and Jesus will be with you. Be devout and still, and Jesus will remain with you. You can quickly send Jesus away and lose his grace if you wish to turn aside to external [worldly] things. And if you have driven him away and lose him, to whom will you fly, and whom then will you seek as a friend? Without a friend you cannot live well, and if Jesus is not your friend above all, you will truly be desolate. You do foolishly, therefore, if you [fully] trust or find joy in any other.

 

You may have your friends and your advocates on earth, but to not befriend and call on Jesus is not giving full Spiritual power to your prayers or your Christian witness. As hymnwriter Joseph Scriven once put his words to music: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”

 

So today as three young women and one young man profess their Christian faith, I tell them, as I tell all of you: we know Jesus has prayed for his disciples before; call on him to pray for you, and for people in your prayers, anytime you need it. Think of him as your Savior, as you will profess today. But think of him also as your friend, for in today’s Facebook world, to not invite Jesus to be your Friend is to cut out a wonderful and enriching relationship. And finally, remember that even Jesus prayed and demonstrated to us how important it was. This world is most difficult to navigate without the power of prayer.

 

Let us pray:  O Awesome God: today we will be praying to you. In part we have been praising you because you are so worthy of praise. We have already offered a prayer of confession. And soon we will offer prayers of thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession. But our prayers will not be weak or anemic if we remember to call on the name of Jesus, to be our advocate again, as he has been in the past. So we will offer our prayers in His name. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                June 1, 2014