Luke 7:1-10

In his book The Greatest Generation Speaks, Tom Brokaw records some of the letters he received from members of the armed forces and their families.

In one section called “Faith,” he includes this story:

John Craven of McLean, Virginia was a military chaplain in four campaigns during World War II and three during the Korean War.  His story came to us from an April 6, 1995, article in the Religious Herald, The Virginia Baptists’ weekly. The author is Pam Parry:

Traumatized by mortar fire, the young Marine huddled outside a military hospital, his body trembling, clenched into a fetal position. “John the Baptist” took his hand and began to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The trembling continued. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In a moment, the Marine composed himself enough to join the chaplain: “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” As they finished the Lord’s Prayer, the [Marine} began to relax and the shaking subsided. “The most effective antidote for shell shock is the Lord’s Prayer, “says Chaplain John  Craven of McLean, … Craven, affectionately known as John the Baptist by the Fourth Marine Division, ministered to hundreds of wounded, dying, and scared men.”  [Random House, 1999, pp. 113-114]

Men and women, even those in the military, can have all of their gear, all of their weapons, and all of their technology, and still not feel comforted or safe in the midst of a shelling, of direct combat, or the fear of stepping on an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device.  There are times when even the troops that stand with them, and the chain of command above them, cannot help them out of an emotional crisis. At those times, many in foxholes, or in hospitals, or in camps might call on their Higher Power; or they might fall to their knees and pray to God; or they might call out to Jesus and ask for help. If they do that, they will not be the first to do so, nor will they be the last. Anytime they, or we, feel like the spirit is about to break, or mentally at a point of breakdown, people can feel, hopeless, or in the dark, or not knowing where to turn. God is in the hope business; God shines light in the darkness; God is a guide for those who are lost. Jesus came to share that message.

In our text today, we have a Roman soldier. He is called a centurion, but he is a soldier.  Romans centurions were required to give their allegiance to Caesar: Caesar’s image was on their coins, and Caesar wanted to be treated as a supreme being; we might say, “as a god.” So this centurion had a servant, one who was very important to and valuable to him. He needed him. The centurion almost treated the servant as a family member and not as a “piece of property.” He showed genuine concern for an illness the servant had that had brought him nearly to death. Presumably he had used all the Roman or military resources at his disposal. And then, as he was in the town of Capernaum, he heard that Jesus had come into town. He sent elders of the Jews to speak to Jesus, believing that they would be able to get his ear better than a Roman soldier could. Apparently these elders had sympathy and concern for this man among them; perhaps he was more of a neighbor than a threat.  As the elders approached Jesus and tried to convince him to come the short distance to help the centurion’s servant, they said: the soldier  “loves our nation and he built our synagogues.”  Jesus went with them. As he almost arrived, the centurion must have been surprised and humbled to see him coming. He quickly sent friends to greet him and to tell him something those in the military would understand: “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one ‘Go’ and he goes; and to another ‘Come’ and he comes.” Jesus had not found a Jew who honored his authority so well. So he made an example of him. He healed the man’s servant and others saw and heard about his healing.

There are several lessons we can get from this encounter. One is preparing ourselves to respect authority.  The security of our nation would be severely challenged if troops do not do what superior officers ordered.  Authority must be honored or the system does not work. In civilian life people are challenged to think for themselves, and ever to challenge authority.  Some even challenge God, or challenge if there is a God, or a Savior. And then they get into trouble, and they need the teacher, or the police officer, or the firefighter, or the pastor. Then what do they do? Others get sick, and they need the medicine they once refused to take; and still others need the doctor they once refused to heed. Then a person they love gets sick, and without asking, for it, a community of believers starts praying for them; unselfishly, fervently, and [this is the authority part] praying to Jesus as if he has the full authority of God to heal. In many cases, the person starts to heal beyond the expectations or explanations of medical personnel. Some Christians have such a belief in the authority of Jesus: to cast out demons, and to heal those who are ill, so much so that their prayers don’t even include a smidgeon of a doubt of the outcome. How are your prayers? Are you praying to an absolute authority? Or is Jesus among the many figureheads to whom you pray? We cannot split our allegiance. We cannot approach our prayers by shrugging our shoulders and saying;
“Well, I guess it couldn’t do any harm!” Either we honor the authority of Jesus, or don’t bother him with half-hearted or unbelieving requests. As the good soldier demonstrated in Luke’s gospel, he was a man who counted on people doing what he said, and he did what his leaders ordered. So he came to Jesus on that basis. It is a very good basis for all, both civilian or soldier. Believe in the authority Jesus has over brokenness and demons.

Another lesson: remember to show honor where honor is due.  In inspiring the armies that fought for American independence, George Washington insisted that that they honor God in all ways. In a piece of legislation he scripted, he set apart “a day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation,  ‘to implore the Lord, and Giver of all victory, to pardon our manifold sins and wickedness’s, and that it would please him to bless the Continental Armies with his divine favour and protection’—all Officers and Soldiers, are strictly enjoined to pay all due reverence and attention to that day, to the sacred duties due the Lord of hosts….[George Washington’s Sacred Fire,  Peter A. Lillback. Providence Forum Press,2006, p.176.]  Honor God. Keep the commandments. How can we kneel before the Lord when we need a favor, when we fail to kneel out of honor or respect on the other days? How do you imagine Jesus would feel about that?  Scripture says, “The prayers of the faithful are powerful and effective.” That’s James 5:16. It’s in the setting of healing. Even in the first century, people healed in the name of Jesus. They still do.

Finally, trust in Jesus.  Without so much as a question, the friends of this soldier delivered his message to Jesus, and Jesus lifted up the soldier’s trust as exemplary. He had such faith. Jesus is looking for that kind of faith. But in our world so many people of all ages question; so many mock; and so many doubt.  What if we try a little faith?  I know there as some people who have tried prayer and didn’t get their wish. Yes I use the word “wish deliberately. Some people treat prayer as if they were asking a genie in a bottle to grant a wish.  Other people hope prayer is like a vending machine, where they put in a request, and out comes the desired answer. But prayer is different. It is offered through an established relationship, not from a stranger to a questionable God. And prayers are offered with the knowledge that sometimes the answer is “wait,” or “not yet,” or “It’s in my plans,” or even “no.” Even good parents say “no” sometimes. So would do well, when we call on Jesus, to do so with honor, a belief in his authority, and with a humble spirit.  Ask for what you need from others. But respect authority. Show honor. And trust in Jesus. What amazing things we’ve learned from a soldier today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                              May 29, 2016



Romans 5: 1-5

As we begin, please listen to this extended description of life in America:

We are told we live in the “age of anxiety.” …. We talk of peace but are confronted with war. We devise elaborate schemes for security but have not found it. …. For generations we have been running like frightening children, up first one blind alley and then another. Each time we tell ourselves: “This is the right one, this one will take us where we want to go.” But each time we have been wrong.

One of the first paths we chose was “political freedom.” Give everyone political freedom, we said, and the world will become a happy place.[ Others added being educated saying] Political freedom coupled with education will do the trick….Where has it led us? You know the answer. We are the most informed people in the history of civilization—and yet the most miserable. Our high school students know more about the physical laws of the universe than the greatest scientists in the days of Aristotle. But though our heads are crammed with knowledge, our hearts are empty. … America is also said to have the highest per capita of boredom of any spot on the earth. We know that because we have the greatest variety and greatest number of artificial amusements of any country. People have become so empty they can’t even entertain themselves. We have to pay other people to amuse them, to make them laugh, to try to make them feel warm and happy and comfortable for a few minutes, to try to lose that awful, frightening, hollow feeling—that terrible, dreaded feeling of being lost and alone ….We are a nation of empty people. Our heads are crammed full of knowledge but within our souls is a spiritual vacuum.

[Peace With God, Billy Graham, Doubleday and Company, pp.15-17.]

“What an assessment of our times!” you might say. And while that may be true, it was not said about our times. It was said by the Rev. Billy Graham about our country in 1953. 1953! Is there anything new under the son? Aren’t the conditions that many in America face today the same conditions people faced 60 years ago? Today there are still people looking for satisfaction; for happiness; and for one other thing: they are looking for peace in the turbulence of terrorists who infiltrate airlines and attack buildings; they are looking for peace in the anguish of the sudden death of a loved one; or they are looking for peace in the midst of marital or family or workplace squabbles. We are still looking for peace. Many people have written about it. One of them is Billy Graham. Another was the Apostle Paul.  Let’s hear from Paul now.

He wrote these words to the Romans: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” What does that mean?  Anders Nygren, an expert on this text from Sweden, writes:

When we hear the word ‘peace,’ it is very easy for us to think of it as expressing a certain subjective state of the soul. Peace is the opposite of disturbance and unrest. It is a calm, exalted, and peaceful mood of the soul….[But] for Paul, peace is not merely an inner condition. Peace is a concept that implies relationship.

So it is that difficult neighbors can throw hopes for peace out the window. Toward the end of our stay in our first Florida home, we would come home to under aged, unsupervised children handling their parents guns, children torturing lizards and other wild animals for fun, and parents who couldn’t curb their behavior. Because of that, we left our first home and are in our second Florida home. We could not keep coming home to such unrest.  Good neighbors can bring a sense of security, peace, and comfort to your home. Difficult neighbors can bring fights over noise, or boundaries, or Property Association guidelines. They can create caustic relationships. In each of those difficult situations, peace is illusive.

You may have conflicts with your mother or mother in law; your father or your father in law, or with your children or those whom they married; or perhaps with your parents. Such anguish brings heartache and sometimes anger to all involved parties. It is the farthest thing from peace. And as Paul says, having peace with God is paramount. Part of having peace is with God is believing that Jesus paid for your sins; but even so, you have to be responsible for your actions, change our ways, and ask for forgiveness. Having a broken relationship with God, or with others, can spoil any chance for peace in your heart. Broken relationships with God, and broken relationships with others, can create true barriers to peace.

The late Dr. Dan Taylor, founder of our Presbyterian Counseling Center, often recommended books he had read to help pastors with their own personal issues or professional issues. One day he came to our meeting and said, “I just read the most remarkable book, and I recommend it to you. It’s called Make Friends with Your Shadow: How to Accept and Use Positively the Negative Side of your Personality.” So of course, we want out and bought it, and relished it. The author was Dr. William A Miller who was Director of the Department of Religion and Health at Fairview Hospital, Minneapolis, and supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education. He contended that the side of us that chooses dark over light and wrong over right is part of our soul that we should not deny, but instead come to know it, acknowledge it, and manage it. He said that people who do those things are much more at peace, not just with others, but with themselves. In one chapter he says:

Making friends with your shadow will be sure to get you in touch with your earthiness and saltiness. It will put your feet on the ground and take your head out of the clouds. It will orient you to reality and make you a solid person. It will put you in touch with your natural and primitive side, as well as your body, and help you along the way to wholeness. [It] helps facilitate your acceptance of yourself as a less-than-perfect human being. We have a dark side; we are not all light.  Of course I am a decent person, but I am sometimes a louse….I trust, but I also doubt….I succeed and I fail. I create and I destroy.

CPE specialists like Dr. Miller really do help us to be honest with ourselves, encouraging us not to always present the side of ourselves that shines like gold, without acknowledging, at the right time, that parts of us stink. That is called being genuine, or authentic, and those who don’t do that can be spotted a mile away by many who have a sixth sense about such things. Teenagers and college aged young adults are especially good at spotting phony people. Trying to always shine will not lead you to peace. Having times when you go on your knees to God, or hat in hand to other human beings and admit that you were wrong,  are times when peace can pervade your life.

But when it comes to knowing the human soul, few people get to the heart of the matter like Billy Graham did.  All this year we have told our Confirmation Class what an extraordinary thing they and their parents are doing.  There are places in the world like our schools that help students to excel in scholastically; there are places such as after school sports that help students excel physically. But many students in our school have atrophied or underdeveloped souls unless they have had religious guidance and challenges. Churches, for example, have teachers who are experts on the soul: that part of the human race that helps people: 1) think about their moral choices, 2) to consider that a loving Creator made them, and: 3) recognize when their shadow side shows up, they will need to ask for forgiveness through their Savior Jesus. As our Confirmation students stand up front today without their parents’ presence or their answers, they themselves will affirm what they believe. Among their affirmations: that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. Only when people affirm that do passages like Romans 5 make sense. Pastors, Christian Educators, Sunday School Teachers, and Youth Leaders, along with parents, are in charge of molding and making the soul of children get transformed from a blank slate to being one that honors God and loves their neighbor, and knows why they do both. Without such nurture, me-first narcissism remains in the soul that has not fully developed from childish view of the world, Children believe they are the center of their own world when they are one, two, or three. But we are not supposed to stay at that age spiritually or emotionally. When our souls grow and develop, we can find peace with God and with others.

Today, keep tending to your soul. Discuss situations between right and wrong; remind yourself of any Sunday School classes you may have had, and consider going back to learn more. Get into groups like Disciple classes where you can share your successes and your failures. And consider claiming Jesus as your Savior if you have not already done so. If you do those things, you will be on your way to finding peace with God.

Let us pray: Dear Great Listener and one Who Responds: you know exactly how to find peace in our souls. Yet with so many voices and so-called “experts,” people can be misinformed or uninformed. Open the souls of those ready to grow and learn, that they might be souls for Jesus Christ, with eyes for hurting people and for our wounded and misguided world. We give you the glory for all of our efforts through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 22, 2016



Acts 2: 14-21; Luke 21: 7-19

If you were here last Sunday you know the message was about meeting Christ, specifically about his Second Coming.  Based on the book of Revelation, 1 Thessalonians, and the Ascension story from the Gospel of Luke, the Second Coming of Christ is a New Testament event. It was not something Jews talked about in the days of the First Covenant, or Old Testament. But there is a concept that was fully developed in Old Testament times that was also embraced by several New Testament writers. It is the “Day of the Lord,” or “the Last Days.” Today we will explore those concepts and see how it differs from the Second Coming of Christ.

It is Peter in the Acts chapter 2 who says these ominous words:

“In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” But he is quoting the prophet Joel. We have very few words in the Bible that Joel proclaimed, but all of them are powerful and some are frightening. But hear this: the way Joel’s words were interpreted for the Jews was quite different from the way Peter interpreted those words on Pentecost. William Barclay puts it this way:

The Jews never lost their conviction that they were God’s chosen people. They interpreted that status to mean that they were chosen for special privilege among the nations. … Bit by bit they reached the conclusion that what [humanity] could not do, God must do; and [they] began to look forward to a day when God would intervene directly in history and exalt them to the honour they dreamed of. That day of that intervention was The Day of the Lord. They divided all time into two ages. There was The Present Age, which was utterly evil and doomed to destruction; there was [also] The Age to Come [sometimes referred to as The Last Days], which would be the golden age of God. Between the two there was to be The Day of the Lord which was to be the terrible birth pangs of the new age. It would come suddenly like a thief in the night; it would be a day when the world would be shaken to its very foundations; it would be a day of judgment and terror. All over the prophetic books of the Old Testament and in much of the New Testament are descriptions of that Day.

So you see how easy it is to lump “The Day of the Lord,” “Judgment Day,” and the “Second Coming of Christ” into the same event. But they have different roots and different purposes. Let’s continue:

When Peter quoted Joel saying “In the Last Days,” he, meant what Joel meant; it was the beginning of a new age.  The Christian Pauline concept of a good world that was just tainted with sin, had not been fully embraced, even though Genesis recorded that “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” In addition, the Spirit, the very Spirit lifted up today on Pentecost, was there when God created the world. For Peter, especially after the death of Christ, the world was a bad place, needing the intervention of a good God. And so he quoted from a powerful prophet he likely learned about in his boyhood- Joel. And when he quoted it, he described the picture of that Day as Joel did to the terror of his listeners: “I will show wonders in the heaven above,” [says the Lord God], and signs on the earth beneath: blood, and fire, and vapors of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes….And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Christians who read that think it means that we need to call on the name of Jesus as Lord to be saved before that awful day. But in fact, Joel says the very same thing centuries before Jesus was born on earth. Those words are meant to warn the unfaithful, and to give people a chance to choose the LORD. The actual translation in Joel is a call for them to choose “Yahweh” or as some say, “Jehovah.” In both the Old and New Testaments, the description is a call for people to repent and live faithfully. That message can be preached in our 21st century just as effectively. Who know when that Day might come? And who knows where we will be if we have not claimed Jesus as Lord before we die?

When Joel prophesied that God declared: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” in his day he was certainly only talking about the Jews. The Jews were his people, and God was their God; other nations had other gods but no one but the Jews had God the Lord; Yahweh; who some have called Jehovah. But by the time of Pentecost, Jesus had come, had pointed to God, had embodied the qualities of God, and seekers after God came, from many nations, to worship God too. Of course up until this point, almost all who called God “Lord” were Jews; the ones who called Jesus “Lord” might have been called “Jews for Jesus,” but that group of followers were not first called “Christians” until later in the book of Acts in the city of Antioch according to Acts 11:26.  But on Pentecost, Peter had a revelation; an “aha” experience. Likely many others did too. If you remember the famous story in Acts chapter two, people from all over the world heard people from different countries, people who traditionally did not believe in God the Lord, speaking in ways they could understand! They had arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem from many nations! And what brought these ragtag groups of people together from different nations, to be gathered on that providential day, at the providential time, at the House of the Lord?  They believed it was the Lord himself, interceding in their evil-filled world, indicating that a new day was beginning; perhaps a new age was dawning! They thought that they were entering the Last Days.

Who knows what it would have been like on that amazing day?  I know people sometimes imagine going back in time to a place or an event to visit. This one would have been an extraordinary one: to see Jerusalem on that amazing day, the day that gave birth to the Christian Church!  I don’t think I would want to have visited the cross with Jesus on it. But to see and hear the Pentecost event with my own eyes; to hear people who normally speak many different languages, speaking so I could understand them, and they could understand me? That would be a time to visit. It would be like the United Nations without the translators; none would have been needed.

All of the descriptions Peter gives quote Joel directly, pulling the frightening images directly from Joel’s prophesy. Joel meant to describe that destructive Day between “The Present Age” and “the Age to Come:” the reckoning Day of the Lord when God would change the world. What a game changer that would be! Instead, God gave human beings free will according to Genesis, and chose not to make us puppets, or marionettes, but human beings who are intended to learn, and to grow, and to have a soul that gets enriched instead of truncated. God put the direction our world would take into the laps of human leaders; yes they can be Godly leaders who listen for the will of God, but like the Wizard of Oz, God never planned to be behind the curtain of the clouds pulling levers to make everything work out just fine in our daily lives. That’s what we want: a God who stops cars before they hit another one; stops guns before they fire a shot; stops wars before deaths ensue. We want Superman. But we have God, whose purpose is to mold us, teach us, to live among us, and to lead us until there is an evolution from chaos back into order, when let God through Christ leads our lives and actions. We aren’t there yet. But if we listen, and read, and pray, there are instructions in the Bible, and in visions, and in our sons and in our daughters. The answers to our issues can be found; but the loudest people can often drown out the smartest ones, or the most insightful ones. When the prophet Elijah was listening for God, God did not speak with baritone thunder; God spoke in a still small voice. God is not absent. God is present, filling the hearts and minds of many around us with wisdom.

The Old Testament concepts of the Day of the Lord and the Last Days presumed a world that was hopelessly evil.  There are days that you may think that. But even days after Jesus death, God was doing a new thing on a day called Pentecost; inspiring new people, from many countries, to go back to their communities to tell about the God they had discovered. It is still a good idea. Let us not only talk about God, or witness about Christ, let us also assimilate Godly and Christian ethics into the decisions we make and the actions we take.  When we do that, we can become Pentecost people: ones who have heard the Holy Spirit, put Jesus in our hearts, and put Godly consultation into our choices.

Let us pray: “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us; melt us, mold us, fill us, and use us. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 15, 2016



Revelation 22: 12-14; 16-17; 20-21

The return of Christ, often called “the Second Coming of Christ,” is a subject about which the Bible has scant information, but that has not kept the Christian publishing industry from putting forward declarative statements from the fervent imaginations of the writers and their extrapolations from Scripture. In other words, while the Bible says little, authors have written volumes.  It’s enough to confuse anyone. Today, on this Mother’s Day, almost everyone here has had a family member die. We know that some special people in our community have even passed away this week.  What can these people expect to see beyond death if they are Christians? This topic can be a help to them.

First, where do we find descriptions of this topic in the Bible? We know that after Jesus himself died according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, on the third day he arose from the dead. Then days later, an event described in Luke 24, he ascended into Heaven. According to John 14, Jesus told his disciples: I go to prepare a place for you…. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and take you unto myself, that where I am, you may be also.” So it sounds very much like those who love Jesus will see Jesus again. Will they see him on Earth; or in Heaven; or both? Let’s see what we find on this subject.  One place to look is in the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. In chapter 21, the holy city, New Jerusalem, was revealed to John by Jesus. In that place and in that time Jesus said: “God will dwell with people and will wipe away every tear from their eyes; death shall be no more, neither shall there be crying or sadness or pain and more, because those things will be in the past.” That’s comforting, isn’t it? All the things that bring us sorrow will be no more. That’s good to know! And what about the place beyond the clouds: do we know more about that? Revelation 22 gives us a metaphorical description of wonder and of beauty, including radiant colors, gates that never close, a river of life, and of the Lord Jesus being the light of the New Jerusalem forever. Then Jesus gave John a message to share: “Behold, I am coming soon.” So the early church believed that Christ would return to Earth in their lifetime. Paul’s writings use that mindset; and the early other leaders thought so too.  Jesus says “Come.” It is invitational; not threatening.  And when his followers finally see him again, it definitely will be awesome. We will be in the presence of our awesome God.

Second, the Apostle Paul addressed people’s fears of being “left behind” in his first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 4. You see, some Thessalonians had family members who had loved God, but had not known Jesus; people were just learning about Jesus from Paul. This was about the middle of the first century. Their family members had already been buried. What would happen to them once those alive died and went to be with Jesus? Would families be forever separated? Paul called their buried family members “asleep” instead of dead. Knowing that people who loved Jesus would be concerned about what would happen, Paul wrote: “God will bring with [Jesus] those who have fallen asleep…. The Lord [Jesus] will descend from Heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first [that is, those in that first century who had died loving God, before Paul proclaimed Christ to them.] Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” [I Thessalonians 4: 15-18]  Remember we are looking over the shoulder of the Thessalonians of about 55 A.D., reading what Paul wrote. It was for a first century audience. But here we are 2000 years later and Jesus has not yet come to Earth a second time that we know of. What do we do about that? Paul told the Thessalonians something that is as useful for us as it was for them: “As to the times and seasons, [meaning exactly when Christ will return], you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” [1Thessalonians 5:1 and 2]  In other words, if we knew when the thief would enter our homes, we would be ready for him. But we do not know. The teachable moment is to not take either the entrance of the thief, or the return of Christ, for granted. Have your spiritual house in order every day and every night. Who knows when one will be involved in an accident; or one will have a stroke, or a heart attack; or one is attacked by a robber; or when people just pass away? No one knows the day or the hour.

Third, some have made a lot of money looking at Revelation chapter 20 and frightened people about a time when Satan will be unleashed on the earth for a thousand years. It describes Jesus return as on ominous Judgment Day. And over the years, people who’ve that view have written books predicting the day of Christ’s return. People who hold this view have, over the years, counted dates carefully and pulled out their calculators, trying to figure out the timeline for Christ’s return. And countless times they have been wrong about the time and manner of it.. Then they put out a revised edition of their prediction in a new book and more people foolishly buy it! Foolish because there is no place in Scripture that says that God will reveal the time of Christ’s return to any mortal. Yet people still want to know what has been written based on this subject from Revelation 20.  One school of thought is that Jesus will return angry, after the faithful have been lifted up, or “raptured,” to mete out punishment to those “left behind.” Perhaps you believe that. I don’t.  The passage on which it is based was written by John in Patmos around 95 A.D. to comfort people of faith and to frighten people without faith with language that is highly stylized, metaphorical, and symbolic. It is called “apocalyptic language.” And it spoke to the first century listeners, rather than being a predictor of events in the 21st century. But others believe that when Christ will return to Earth, it will be only after we have carried out his Great Commission of making disciples of all nations, inviting them to know him and follow him.  We can’t force people’s wills, we can just invite. They say he will return joyfully, saying “Thank you good and faithful servants” for the work you have done and the love you have shown.” Do you believe that? I believe when Jesus returns it will be like that. Every time in the gospels when Jesus met people who believed in God, or even others who did not, he met them without judgment or condemnation. I think that is his nature; like a good shepherd, he will come back and invite people to “Come,” and lead his sheep home.

Fourth and finally, what about those who die before Jesus’ second coming? Paul said “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” [1 Cor. 15:50.] Some people read Paul and conclude that people of our day who have died stay buried until Christ’s return to earth. Then their bodies rise up from their graves.  But Jesus himself said even to a thief on the cross: “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” [Luke 23:43] I’ve studied this a lot and thought about it a lot. My heart rests easily with this idea: While our physical bodies return to the dust from which they were made, our spiritual bodies rise when Jesus returns for us when we die in something of a personal second coming. That’s what it sounds like Jesus is saying in John 14 to his disciples. In Jewish weddings presumptive father of the groom and father of the bride decide on a bride price, the groom goes away with his father to build a room on his father’s house where he and his bride will soon live. Then the son, the groom, returns to get his bride. I think that is what Jesus is teaching us, the church, that is called “the bride of Christ.” In other words, if Jesus has not come to the world a second time yet when a person dies, I believe Jesus will come for us personally, and gently carries us over to the other side, to the room prepared for us in his Father’s House. It will be hopeful experience! It will be compassionate; and it will be loving. If only a soul went to Heaven, how would we recognize one another? In a sense of hope, and from anecdotal evidence of at least three accounts of people who have seen Heaven, I think our spiritual bodies, albeit healed bodies, get to join Jesus in heaven!

So, for some who have gone before us, Jesus’ return has already been a personal one; he has already met them and escorted them into his Father’s house! For others of us, who knows if Christ will return before our death? But if he does, have your spiritual house in order! And if he doesn’t, then when you see him after you breathe your last breath, it should be wonderful reunion.

Let us pray:  Dear Lord Jesus: the Bible says that you were even present in the beginning; perhaps even at our own beginning with our Creator! You have loved us, and you will never stop loving us. Comfort people here today who have lost people they love; and give them hope for the grand reunion that could await them.

Thank you for being our Way, our Truth, and our Life. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   May 8, 2016

05-01-16 Easter 6c

— sorry, no audio available for this sermon —

While we may be on the far side of Easter, our passage from John this morning is set during the last supper. Jesus is still talking to his disciples about what is going to happen next. And life for them is about to change pretty drastically. Again. After all, it already changed pretty drastically when Jesus came into their lives: some left behind families and learning trades. One walked away from a good job as a tax collector. All to follow Jesus across the countryside learning from him. And now Jesus tells them that he is going away.


The disciples ask him what happens now. How will Jesus ministry continue? And Jesus answers them “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The ministry of Jesus will continue through his followers when they love him and keep his word.


What Jesus is saying here is that to be a follower is to have and keep Jesus’ word, or his teachings; to keep Jesus’ word is to love him. We show our love, that agape love we have talked about over the last few weeks, we show that love to our Lord by keeping his word.


We cannot treat loving Christ and following his teachings as if they were separate and distinct pieces. We cannot selectively choose only one part: ‘I’ll have the love of Jesus please, but hold all of that messy caring for the sick and welcoming the outcasts.” No, Jesus makes it very clear here that we love him, by following his word.


One day a little girl came running into the house to her mother, exclaiming: “Mamma, I love you!”


The mother hugged her little girl with a smile. “I am so glad you love me.” Then she pulled back and looked down at her daughter  “I have had a hard day, and I am so tired. If you love me so much, will you wash the dishes for me?”


The little girl solemnly replied: “I do love you, mother, but not in that way.”


When we truly love Christ, we wash the dishes. We bring food to someone who is grieving. We sit next to hospital beds and feed the hungry and visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. We simply cannot separate loving Jesus with following his teachings.  We cannot even just follow the teachings we like, and ignore the ones that are hard or make us uncomfortable. And this is what Jesus presents his followers as he is saying goodbye to them.


How hard that must have been for them? Not only are they losing the rabbi they adore and have followed for years, they are given this seeming monumental task of carrying on his ministry and presence to the world. Remember, Jesus tells the disciples that he will abide in them so that others will learn of his presence through the disciples. That is a lot of pressure to lay on anyone. But they won’t be alone.


The great preacher Fred Craddock, offered a helpful way to understand this passage by comparing the disciples here to children playing on the floor and looking up to see their parent putting on hat and coat. The children ask anxious questions: Where are you going? Can we go, too? What will we do while you are gone? Who will stay with us?


Jesus answers the disciples questions. “I go to prepare a place for you.” and “Where I am going you cannot come, but you will come later.”  To the third question he responds, “Love each other as I have loved you.” To “Who will stay with us?” Jesus answers no fewer than five times. The text before us includes the second. He had already said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… he abides with you and will be in you.” Now he adds: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”


The word translated “Advocate” by the NRSV is paraklētos, and no single English word can convey its meaning. It literally means, “the one who calls from beside” or “the one called to the side of.” We also see it translated as “Comforter” or “Counselor” and all of these terms are accurate sometimes, for the Spirit has many roles in our lives.  We often talk about the Spirit like a tongue of fire on Pentecost. We also call the Spirit a rushing wind, blowing through our lives. All of these images help to get across the sense of the Spirit.


The function of the Spirit given here today by Jesus is of one who will teach and remind. What will the Spirit teach us? Everything! There will be new things to learn about God in the years ahead. Through the Spirit, God speaks to us and teaches us still.  The Spirit is what keeps the church alive and growing after two thousand years. The Spirit gives us new ideas, creativity and energy, enlivening our worship and our faith.


And of what will the Spirit remind us? All that Jesus has said to us! Because Jesus’ teachings are sometimes hard to follow. It is easy to forget them as we go about our lives, caught up in all that is going on around us. These two overlapping functions, to teach and to remind, make the important connection between memory and new understanding in our faith. We have not yet learned all that the Spirit would teach us, yet all of it will connect to fresh remembrance of Jesus’ word. We need both new ideas and understanding as well as the original teachings that our Lord gave us.


And Jesus knew that we would have trouble balancing all of that on our own. After all, Jesus never guaranteed that loving him would be easy; that following his teachings would come naturally to us. But he said that he would send help for us. He would make it so even when we stumble, the Spirit is there to guide us back to his word. Back to the way Jesus is calling us to. Back to love.


You see, Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Paraklete, to take his place when he’s gone. Which means that Jesus himself was the first Paraklete.  He was the first one called in to guide and comfort us. The first one to show us the way. The Spirit was sent after Jesus to fulfill this same role. To behave like Jesus did for us.


Which means that we’ve actually seen what the Spirit looks like lots of times. Any time, in fact, someone stands up for another person. Any time someone acts like Jesus, or any time someone bears the love of Christ to another, we are seeing the Spirit in them. Which means that on any given day you have the chance to show the Spirit to someone else in the world through your actions.


In the passage today, Jesus is inviting us to be a part of that community. Just as Jesus is with the Father, we are with Jesus, and the Spirit is in us. When we reach out to one another with compassion, when we show love to another, even on days we are not feeling very loving,  that is how we love Jesus. That is how we follow his teachings.


We are being shown how to love our Lord and how to have the Spirit in our lives.  It looks a lot like loving the rest of the world. After all, the same Spirit that is in us, can be in them.  When we show that care and love for our neighbors, we are loving Jesus in return. When we do for the least, we do for Christ as well.
So today, how will you allow the Spirit to work through you? How will your show your love for our Lord?