Author Archives: Westminster by the Sea

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Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Daytona Beach, FL 32118

06-18-17 The Reform of the Spirit in the Spirit of Reform

On this Father’s Day, the second Sunday after Pentecost, let us also remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and all that the Holy Spirit does and has done for the Church to Form and reform it again and again; to grow it to the greatness it is. The Lord’s beauty is endless. Its’ in all of us; it’s all around us; its apart of us as we are a part of it. It flows like a current of energy; in us and through us; can you feel it now as it flows through the Church moving and shaping us, changing and molding us from what we were, to what we are now, to what we are to become, to what we will become again after that. A change that is day by day, minute by minute if necessary, but constant. This change is sometimes defined as perception; or in a country song I heard once; a change in attitude; but it does happen and as we seek out the will of the father, the sustainer, the truth, the way and the life, and walk in the footsteps of our savior, we only have to give ourselves to this grace that is freely given to us in this endless beauty that is ours to be had; to be shown and to be announced as it shows us in Psalm 95 0 come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

But do we have the faith; as I said in the children’s message do we sit in the chair with faith knowing it will hold us; or do we at first grab the chair and check it for stability; move the chair around to see if it is sturdy; and then sit down or do we put ourselves in the hands of the Christ with the same trust that Jesus has for us. Maybe we have more of a reforming trust; a trust that changes with our experiences and our growth in God; as God shows us more love, we give that love to God and to others; we give more as we are shown more; as it says in Luke 17: 3-6 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of alb] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. But as perfection defined in the Bible is to be the best you can be by the end of your life, we are not asked for a perfect faith.

Abraham and Sarah and really all the people of the Bible were normal people, well as normal as people get, what I mean by that is they were just like us. They had no powers; they were men and women of Faith, Men and Women of God. The Disciples fought the same problems we did in life; the same disabilities; same learning curves; so, when we think of Sarah and Abraham, we might get a better reality of it if we think about how it would affect us, or, how we would act in the situation. As I am not as old as Abraham was, seven months ago at the age of 48, I became the proud Father of a beautiful daughter. I did not laugh! And neither did my wife Valeri!

But as Sarah did laugh in amazement that it would happen, God, who turns Hebrew storytelling on its ear by showing himself to Abraham so concretely, says one of the many great statements ofthe Bible; a statement that we as Faithful believers can bury ourselves in like a blanket; a safety net that shows the love of God and how big God really IS “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.” This is a statement that Faith is built on;

Abraham in the scripture follows the old practices of Eastern Hospitality, the practice being to take strangers into your home, which in a nomadic society like theirs was a highly esteemed virtue. This seems to show that they really had no idea who the men were as this was a normal act of the time; and up until God basically brought up Sarah laughing they had no thought of them as angels and God. But of course, this was Abrahams path; a path that was not shown to him; a path that formed and reformed; a path that led him in service to the Lord; to fulfill his destiny as Abraham the father of Judaism.

As we walk our paths in life are we called to such service of the Lord? Are we forming and reforming in the Spirit as our fellow reformers did?

Two of the many men and women that were responsible for the Protestant reformation were also much like us trying to get by; to survive; Martin Luther was a monk that gave himself to the Lord after being almost struck by lightning. As he was sent on his vocation to be a teacher and a Pastor, he found that what he read of the word did not seem to fit with the way the Church of the day was reforming; he believed that God is and has to be Love. Acting on this belief of Faith and Love, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” this was a list of questions and propositions he had written for debate. On October 3 1, 1517 Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

John Knox the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, along with Scottish nobility, led in the Protestant Reformation of Scotland. Before that as a Chaplain serving King Edward the sixth in

England he exerted a reforming influence of the Book of Common

Prayer. He was influenced by John Calvin as he learned from him about Presbyterian Polity and Reformed Theology. He stood in his faith and of course as he formed and reformed in the Holy Spirit, he served our Lord and Savior as he was called to. Many people lost their lives for their love of God during this time of reformation and people today are losing their lives for that same love in a much the same reformation.

This walk is not easy; to stand up and be counted; to be seen as the Love of God; to walk in the footsteps of Christ and Hold Fast against sin; to love unconditionally all of creation. But we only have to try.

Romans 5 the second reading this morning is summed up beautifully by Theologian William Barclay as he says “Here is one of Paul’s great lyrical passages in which he almost sings the intimate joy of his confidence in God. Trusting faith has done what the labor to produce the works of the law could never do. It has given a man peace with God. Before Jesus came no man could ever be close with God.’ Jesus shows us the way, he clears the path for us on a daily basis. He shows us the path in the scriptures as he lives and breathes through us that we might be that love to others in this calling of reformation.

This beautiful message of experience and assuredness from Paul is written to us as this message was also written to the Christians of Rome; The word Paul used to explain our dilemma was thlipis; this word translates to Pressure; the pressures of life as they come and go. As we face life; whatever the binds may be that hold us. Sorrow, unpopularity and loneliness produces endurance and fortitude to strive forward in the loving grace of God. Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a great fact for us.

Our Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, Reverend J. Herbert Nelson the second recently stated that as membership of the church had thought to have been declining since the 1970s; it is now slowing down. Congregations like ours are refocusing on their mission; Celebrating both anniversaries and new beginnings; Despite what was thought to be the death of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we remain a viable reality of Christ throughout the world; along within our local communities. Besides our ecumenical ties in mission; we hold fast as a Prophetic voice in Christendom. He goes on to state that our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now. This is reform; we are not dying; we are reforming. As we are growing as individuals in faith we are also growing as the Kirk. We are growing in the Spirit of the reform. As we join in mission here in the Love of God, we also join the rest of the PC USA across the globe in being this Love and the action of Jesus the Christ to the world. As we join in this mission with other Presbyterian churches across the globe, we also join together with all our ecumenical brothers and sisters around the globe in this loving action of reform that the Holy Spirit is doing in all of us. This is the grace of God shining through us that we strive for as Paul said, that this hope that we strive for through our pressures of life does not disappoint, Because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to you. This is a celebration; a celebration to be had every day as we form and reform as the Church, from the beginning of time till the end of time; as we form as the world Church as the faithful of God; as lovers of Jesus Christ.

Even though this might sound simple and maybe even rudimentary, the simplicity that God is calling us to is as easy as a humble action ofprayer, as our Savior prayed for us in John 1 7, that we may grow our relationship with God; that we’ve been given the chance to as the Christ reforms in us and shows us; that we may further reform as the Church; as Jesus told us the two most important commandments are to Love God and Love our neighbor. That as Jesus shows us how to live, and breathes in us and through us that we, as our Brothers and Sisters of the past reformations of the Church did, grow in this same gift of grace; a grace that is freely given to us; given to us that we will form and reform to further be the Love of God; endless and uncontrollable. This is not a practice, but more a seeking of the divine nature of God; the radical love that God is and gives to us every day. With that Faith of a mustard seed we can live for God in closeness and in relationship. An unceasing, Endless peace.

this is a calling; a calling for everyone; no matter how young or old you are; no matter who you are; for all of creation; a reformed calling of the heart; a calling of Love, to be God’s love, radical Love “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord.’

Amen

06-04-17 PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

PENTECOST: THAT WATERSHED DAY

Acts 2: 1-21

 

For the huge day on the Christian calendar that Pentecost is, it gets very little notice by the world. But to Christians, it is the day the Spirit took hold of frightened followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, empowering them to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in that city, and continuing to go with them into the world! And this was the day when the power of God was no longer connected with a place!  Let me explain: In Exodus 25, Yahweh God instructed Moses and his people how to construct an Ark of the Covenant: a specifically sized and decorated container to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On top was the Mercy Seat, on which the Lord God would dwell. So wherever the Ark was carried: into new lands, into battle, or placed under a tent, God was there. In the wilderness,  the Israelites built a Tabernacle which was a portable earthly meeting place for the people to be in the presence of  God. It was made possible because the Ark was stationed under the tent. The people in those days were wandering and journeying; deciding where God was leading them. Eventually God was leading them to Canaan, but not yet. Once they arrived at Mt Nebo in Jordan, Moses died there. Then Deuteronomy 34: 9 states that “Joshua, the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Spirit of God filled Joshua, but the presence of God was still with the Ark. Joshua led the  people into the promised land, then called Canaan.

 

Once the people began to settle Canaan, (that would become known as Israel,) they decided that a more permanent home for their God would bring him glory. One would have thought that David would have had the glory of the build and the dedication, but the Lord said “No.” It would be known by the name of his son, “Solomon’s Temple.” That First Temple was completed in the middle of the 10th Century and it permanently housed the Ark of the Covenant: the presence of God. The ark continued to be in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, as a reminder that God chose to live there in his city called Jerusalem, among his people. But people had to come to into his presence by coming into the Temple. Even when the Temple was greatly expanded during the time of Herod, it still was the place where Jews and curious gentiles came to be in God’s presence. Today, the Western Wall of the Temple attracts faithful Jews as the place where they can still feel the closest to God.

 

Then Jesus was born on earth by the power of the Holy Spirit according to Luke chapter 1. Christians believe that the fullness of God chose to come to earth in Jesus according to the first chapter of John. According to Matthew chapter 1, Jesus was referred to as Emmanuel, which meant “God with us.”  Coming close to and following Jesus brought people into the presence of the man who stilled the waters and who embodied a holy life.  Jesus even said to his disciples in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.” But last week we acknowledged one big event: it was called the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Before Jesus left, he gave his followers the Holy Spirit, one who would teach, counsel, and comfort.

 

Shortly after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples, and many other people were in Jerusalem at the Temple.  Soon there was the sound of rushing wind, and the sight of tongues as of fire, and it began to rest on each of them. This was a big deal, and a giant change! Coming to fruition was what Jesus promised: that the Spirit of the living God would dwell within their hearts, no matter their nationality, no matter their background. The Holy Spirit would connect nations, and cultures, and peoples. But not only that: people would not have to travel somewhere to be close to God; they now had the power and the presence of God living within them! They could go into all the world feeling empowered, not afraid.  They could find the power of the Living God, in their hearts, where they made room for Jesus as well. God’s presence was now in the temple of human hearts, not in a building made by human hands, or just in heaven! Pentecost is that day of big changes!

 

So what do we make of this?  The English preacher Charles Spurgeon once said:

“Without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. We are ships without the wind, branches without sap, and like coals without fire. We are useless.”

 

Sometimes God tries to get a message through to us, like a parent, a spouse, or a teacher might try. It can be like talking to a wall if we are exclusively focused on our cell phone, our job, or our latest obsession. That knock on the door of your heart, or that gentle nudge on your mind is important; it might be God trying to get your attention, and to gently guide or reassure you. But if the knock goes unanswered or the nudge goes ignored, the Great Spirit of God can go back into dormancy in our soul, until we are ready for the life changing and life-challenging messages brought to us by God. Be open to the Spirit that, like a breeze, we cannot see. Spirit can still move us like a fan can move wind chimes.

 

A boy was once flying a kite on a moderately windy day. His kite was doing so well that it continued to climb higher and higher. At one point a low cloud obscured his kite.  A friend walked by and asked ‘Hey where’s your kite?” “Up there,” the boy replied.” I don’t see it” the friend said. “How do you know it’s still there?” “I can feel it,” said the boy holding the string.

 

Like a breeze on our face, we can feel the air without seeing it .The old gospel song declared: “Every time I feel the Spirit movin’ in my heart, I will pray.”

It’s actually better to pray first; then you can feel that spirit movin’ in your heart.

 

Be aware of the Spirit that came into you at your birth or certainly at your baptism. God dwells within you! Not in Palestine; not in an old Temple. God is within you! And Jesus said his Heavenly Father gifted us with His presence. May Pentecost be a reminder of the power and the guidance that is even within you.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

05-28-17 HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

John 17: 1-11

 

A pastor from San Antonio Texas wrote about the time he came to his office only to be greeted by a handful of phone messages he needed to return. He began at the top of the stack and started working his way through them. After returning several of the calls, he came to one that just had a telephone number on it. He dialed the number, and the voice at the other end of the line answered: “Holy Ghost.” Immediately he thought “This is just what I’ve always wanted: a hotline to the Holy Ghost!” Then her realized he had reached the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic order in San Antonio.

 

There are plenty of times I’d like a hotline to God, to get instant answers! Sure I have a direct line; I can go to God in prayer but the answers come more slowly. I remember a time when a TV preacher told the viewers across the airwaves that God told him personally that he would call him home if his supporters did not send donations totaling 8 million dollars! That was Oral Roberts in 1987. A Time magazine article asked the question “Was Roberts extorting his viewers and using [God] as his accomplice?” You may not believe what happened unless you remember it. Oral Roberts’ received 9 million dollars!! Whew! The Lord did not call him home. But by 2007 the school announced that they were an astonishing 52.5 million dollars in debt.

 

I don’t know anyone who has a “hotline” to God. We have a God who listens in to our prayers. Some wish that prayer, like a vending machine, could put a way to their money in the plate and get to ask God anything, such as: “What is Heaven like?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Instead God has determined that we can best  find his will by searching for it and praying for it like Jesus did when he prayed: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, just as it is in Heaven.”

 

So how do we connect with God when we don’t have a hotline of some kind? Christian singer and songwriter Cynthia Clausen has an idea:

A rocky road, a heavy load, got you wonderin’ if you’ll ever get over.

Your journey’s slow, your faith is low, and you’re wonderin’

who will take the time to get you back on your feet, turn your bitter to sweet. Jesus knows all the burdens that you bear. He will take the tim to care.

Anybody got a heart that will not mend?

Are you trying to live a life you just can’t defend?

Are you in a battle you just can’t win?

Anybody got a problem they can’t solve?

Anybody got a hole in their resolve?

Remember in His hands the world revolves.

Bring it to Jesus.

 

So again this week we look at Jesus through the heart of John, the writer of our gospel today. He is loving, caring, and compassionate. And today we find out something astounding: Jesus prays for his disciples. We find his prayer in John 17.  There is something very sacred—something holy—about not just hearing Jesus teach about prayer, but hearing our Savior pray. Listen to this: Jesus says to his Father “You have given [me] authority over people to give eternal life to all you have given to me.”  So this, I believe, is not only a prayer for the Twelve, but a prayer for all the faithful. Listen to what Jesus prays, on behalf of his followers. First, he prays, “Holy Father, protect them (in the name you have given me) so that they may be one, as we are one.” [Verse 11] Oneness is a theme repeated several times in John’s Gospel. Jesus tries to get across that he and the Father are one, and that he wants his followers to be “one” too. In other words, when one rejoices, all rejoice! When one hurts, all hurt. When one dies, all grieve and support one another. It also means that, together, we seek to have the mind of Christ, asking in our daily lives, “What would Jesus do?”

 

Second, Jesus prays that his Father, “Protect them from evil” or “from the evil one.” That seems to be important to Jesus: he knows how powerful temptation can be, and knows how far people can fall if they listen to a voice other than his. In other words, he is praying that Satan does not dominate our thinking, call our focus away from God, or win our allegiance from God. I know of people who are so afraid of being tricked by Satan or being approached by Satan that all they do is think about Satan and how to avoid him. But if all their energy is poured into avoidance, how is there any energy let for praise, and love, and adoration? Don’t spend your life looking over your shoulder for Satan. Instead, look inward, or outward, or upward seeking the face of your Lord! God can get no glory when your time is eaten up with fear or panic. Jesus has already prayed that you be kept safe from the evil one. Give thanks for Jesus’ prayer, affirm it in your heart, and then spend your life glorifying God, not falling into Satanic traps. Jesus tells us why: “So that we might have his joy in all its fullness.”  Not running in terror, but living with joy.  Yes in our world that features terrorists, we need to be wary; but not obsessed. That is Jesus’ prayer for his followers; to be kept safe from evil. We know that because we got to read it thanks to John.

 

An outstanding young law student who was interviewing for a summer clerking position with a law firm had just completed the last of several interviews. He decided to accept one position in particular even though he had several attractive offers from other large and prestigious firms. When asked why he picked the one he did, this was his answer: “This was the only firm where the partners talked to me about how much they enjoyed the practice of law and their firm. Most of the others just focused on their benefits and their retirement packages.” Could people make choices about joining a church the same way? Could they join our church because they feel the Spirit moving here and sense our enthusiasm? Wouldn’t that be a better criterion than: “This looks like a good place to have a funeral?” Do people join churches just for the benefits (salvation) and the generous retirement policy (eternal life?)

 

Finally, Jesus asks his Father to “Sanctify them in the truth.” A strange phrase, right? The original Greek word means, “to set us apart for a task; to consecrate or make holy.”  We are set apart to be change agents of the world, not to let the world change us. We live IN the world but not OF the world. We are the ones whose prayer lives should not only be about asking for needs to be met, but asking God what we can do to help make this world into the Kingdom of God.  We are given a task, equipped to do it, and asked to carry it out.  There is a plan for your life and my life if you hear it and seek it! Seek it in prayer. And remember, even as you are praying, Jesus is praying with you and for you. You are not alone. Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 28, 2017

05-21-17 THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

John 14: 15-27

 

We are in the season of transitions, and sometimes of saying goodbye. Some have children graduating from high school or college. Some older adults have to move to a new location to be near a grown child who can care for him or her. Some, like Andrea and Steven yesterday whose wedding was here yesterday, are transitioning to married life. Sometimes there are tearful goodbyes. In the First and Second World Wars, wives said goodbye to their husbands as parents said goodbye to their son, hoping that he would return. Later in the Gulf War and today with both men and women deciding to enlist, or do more than one tour of duty, or to go through an Officer Candidate’s School, we still say our goodbyes, and we pray. In hospital rooms people say goodbye as their loved one goes back for surgery. Goodbyes are part of life. And Jesus in John’s gospel brings a plethora of helps for his disciples, and also for us as we read his words.

 

Today’s text from John is a concentrated portion from about 9 chapters of Jesus giving final instructions to his friends. And today’s text holds the key verse of Jesus’ reassuring words: “I will not leave you orphaned.” The original Greek: “Orphanos.” I will not leave you as orphans. As I told the boys and girls today, for those in our world who do not have a mother or father to care for them, we are glad to support the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, South Carolina. They used to be called an orphanage but that term has fallen out of use. What they do is make a home for children that has a house parent who love them. That way they are no longer feeling abandoned. And Jesus was also saying the same thing. No gospel makes a better case for Jesus’ care and comfort for his followers, and part of that gift is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s roles are: 1) to fill the void with Jesus’ eminent departure. 2) To counsel and be a counselor; and 3) To teach what they and we will want to know.  John, the author, highlights the extraordinary declaration we heard last week: In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Then, three chapters letter: John records Jesus saying:  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Late John recorded the story of the raising of Lazarus, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and early on, the wedding at Cana. What a gift John’s vantage point and witness have been to the church! And as we hear last week, Jesus loved his disciples and when he was leaving, he said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms” as we heard last week. This man filled a void in the lives of the Twelve and others. And Jesus can do that for you too.  Jesus, in John’s gospel, takes not one, but nine chapters to tell his disciples goodbye. For nine chapters: 1) He tells them that after awhile he will leave them, but that he will return; 2)He tells them where he’s going; and 3) He says they can’t go with him now; and 4) he tells them he’s leaving them the Holy Spirit so they will not feel abandoned.  The Spirit has an important role when Jesus departs.

 

One commentator rightly suggests that we picture the disciples almost as children. Picture, for example, children or grandchildren sitting on the floor of your house. When they notice you picking up your car keys, getting a purse or briefcase, and reaching for the door, they might ask questions like the disciples did:

 

  1. “Where are you going?”

Jesus answered that question “I’m going to my Father.” (John 14: 12)

  1. “Can we come too?”

Jesus’ reply: “Where I’m going you can’t go now; but you can come later.”

(John 13:36)

  1. Here’s the key question: “Then who’s going to stay with us?”

Jesus’ reply: “The Father will send you another Counselor who will be with you forever. You will not be left as orphans.” (John 14: 16-18)

 

This chapter of John is one of the most beautiful accounts of God’s care for his people. No wonder that in times of our final goodbyes to loved ones, John 14 brings such comfort. Jesus begins to prepare his disciples in chapter 12. From that time until chapter 21, he is preparing his disciples to carry on without him. “Feed my sheep” was among the last of his instructions.

 

Could this model be a good one for our goodbyes too? Before you are caught off guard by your death, have you made yourself indispensible? Jesus didn’t. He taught others how to carry on without him. Have you avoided the subject of your own death? Jesus didn’t.  Nine chapters out of twenty-one dealt with what to do when he was gone. Do you have a will, and is it up to date? We’ll have a speaker from our planned gifts committee address that next week. Have you told your spouse who to go to for car repairs, or how to handle your finances? Have you told your spouse how to do things around the house, including the kitchen and the laundry room?  It’s time to break our silences, because our silences leave a spouse or child with a greater burden when we are gone. Jesus prepared those around him for his death. If we seek to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in every other area of life, death should be included too. Consider how he has left the Holy Spirit to comfort, to counsel, and to teach us.  Do what he would do.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 21, 2017

 

 

Dear Lord of Life: how often we avoid talking about our deaths. It is more reassuring to say “see you later” than “goodbye.” But dear Jesus: teach us the value of preparing for our death with as much care as we prepare for a new life entering our world. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of our days. And remind us that you never, no never will forsake us and leave us as orphans. Through the power and gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

05-14-17 JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

John 14: 1-11

 

All through the month of May we are blessed to hear words of Jesus as recounted by his disciple John. John loved Jesus almost like a child would love his mother or his father; perhaps even a little more than that. John referred to himself as “The disciple who Jesus loved,” and I am certain he did so out of a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude. So when he reports about Jesus, he does it through a lens of adoration and appreciation. We recounted last week that Jesus was “The Good Shepherd.” And Jesus explained what that meant. Jesus said he was also “The gate” for the sheep, and that any predator or bandit would get to the sheep only over his dead body. Jesus, in John’s gospel, talks to the disciples as if they are frightened of being abandoned. We’ll address their specific fears of abandonment next week. But today we need this context to understand the tone of Jesus’ words. Sometimes people use fearful terminology to described Jesus’ second coming to earth. Some warn that “we must be ready, or we’ll be left behind.” Others say we have to read the signs of the times to see when Jesus will come again, to be “ready” for him. Generally those fearful images are taken from the prophet Joel, from 1 Thessalonians, from one of the other gospels, and sometimes from Revelation.  But Jesus in John’s gospel would never put fear in the hearts of the sheep; remember: last week we read in John 10 that Jesus is not just the good shepherd to his sheep but to the sheep: to all the sheep. So Jesus is for the world. And Jesus in John’s gospel tries to be as comforting as a good mother is with her infant, or a good father or good teacher is with their instruction. Jesus tries to be a calming influence, not a fearful one. Let’s turn to these famous words.

 

“Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.”

We get to listen in to this gentle lesson. It’s the kind of message someone about to die wants to say to children or other loved ones. Do you believe in God? If you do, then you can easily listen in to Jesus’ comforting words. If you don’t, you aren’t condemned harshly; you just may not be ready to buy into the promises to follow. But for those grown men—those disciples—who were not ready to move from their “follower” designation to leader, Jesus understood. Have you ever run a committee, or an Association, or a Club and you became ready to step down?  You asked which of your wonderful workers would step up and assume the leadership role? And the room grows silent?  Not everyone is made to lead.  On the other hand, many who decided to step into a leadership position grew into it and became a good leader. Jesus was about to drop his disciples in the deep end of the pool; he was trying to prepare them. He would not be there to lead them or save them much longer. If you have ever seen geese overhead, for example, they fly in a V shaped pattern as they make their way during migration times. Scientists have studied them and believe the geese honk their encouragement to the leader in front. That one has the hardest job to do: choosing the direction to go and facing all the headwinds. But once the one in front begins to tire, that goose is allowed to fall back and another takes the lead. It is a wonderful way to not wear down or burn out a leader. So Jesus is easing his followers into leadership. Like children who have had both parents die, they have to figure out paperwork, and make decisions, and put their untested skills to use. Jesus knew that the Twelve had been followers; soon they would go into the world as leaders, because their leader would be gone. He was comforting them and preparing them.

 

Next, Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many” —what? Mansions? Rooms? Dwelling places? That’s the question. The King James translators wrote “Mansions” which led to a lot of hopes for getting a “Mansion in the sky.” Is it gated? Is it lovely? Is it exclusive? The truth is more realistic. This story is based on the marriage arrangement for Jews that Jesus had been exposed to all his life. When it was time for a Jewish father to choose a bride for his son, he looked over the brides in the area and chose one for his son. He then went to the bride’s father to see if he would agree to the arrangement. The bride’s father might have agreed, but he would ask a considerable price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. If an arrangement was reached, the father of the bride would tell his daughter that her marriage had been arranged; then the father of the groom would depart with his son to return to the father’s house to build a room on the father’s house. It would be where the new couple would live: a place prepared for them. The father then would begin to make sure than his son not only learned the construction trade, but he also worked to prepare his son to be a husband and later a father. No one knew when the father decided his son was ready; not the son, not the father of the bride, not the bride. The bride and her bridesmaids just had to be ready. There would be no signs along the way. Only the father knew and sent a messenger just before his son returned. Then and only then would he return to get his bride-to-be (who had to be ready) and take her to the place he had prepared for her. It was a room on the father’s house.  So the best word in verse 2 is “room,” not “mansion” or “dwelling place.” This is the tone of this passage: it is comforting and using the familiar situation (familiar to then at least) of Jesus, sometimes called “the groom,” returning to get his bride, who are the members of his Church-his followers. Jesus says to his disciples and to us, in so many words, “I love you that much.” Bible teacher Ray Vanderlaan says Jesus asks you, and asks me, “Will you be my spiritual bride?” How lovely. It’s not weird; it’s gentle, and it soothing. It is not threatening or harsh.

Third, Jesus even lets an objection rise when he says to them “You know the way.” Thomas was troubled and Jesus lets him ask a question, even as he lets him doubt later that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Lord, we do not know where you’re going; how can we?”  Jesus, perhaps with a sigh because he thought these men had understood him, still said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I sometimes cringe at the way that’s interpreted. It is used as an exclusive warning to those who don’t believe in Jesus as Savior; a way that excludes others. But remember; this is the Gospel of John. This is the Gospel that says in chapter one “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus was even in the beginning; with God, and equal to God. That means that for anyone who has died, according to John’s Jesus, he did not just get born by Mary; he existed since the beginning of time. Could it be that, from the beginning of time, no one came to the Father but by Him because he was equal to and with the Creator?  If so, it is meant to comfort; not to scare, or to exclude. He is saying, ‘Hey, I was there when you were created; I will see you again as you depart.” It is very, very comforting. The hymn “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” can be attributed to Jesus. The first line proclaims to the recently baptized person: “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.”  John’s Jesus even gives some evidence toward that stance of Jesus and the Father being one in knowledge and presence.  Phillip, like a child, says “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Our ever patient Jesus (except with moneychangers in the Temple) said “I am in the Father and the Father in me; anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” They were together in the beginning; they will be together in the end. And in between, like a loving mother, or a caring father, or a loving groom, we are reassured that there will be a room prepared for us too. It’s attached to the Father’s house for connection, but it’s separated enough to be your place. A place for you. How many children who shared a room with a brother or sister were excited when they finally got their own room? Or maybe that day hasn’t happened yet for you!  Or perhaps sharing conversations and space are fine with you! Whatever works for you here will be prepared for you there. That’s the kind of Jesus we find in John.

 

When Jesus comes to get us: whether it is at our death or at his second coming, we have a loving groom coming to welcome his bride- that is, members of his church or the sheep from the flock.  Though the good shepherd is the shepherd to all sheep, he is messiah to those who call him Lord. And there is a place prepared for you; and for me. Invite others to know him, not with the threat that they’ll be left behind, because they will feel so cared for and welcome. Like Isaiah once quote God, Jesus certainly knew these words: “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to them and call out to them.” It seems like Jesus is using the best pastoral care and loving care he knows how to offer. Receive it in that way. Whether you are rattled or confused; whether you are sick or well; whether you are a disciple or a seeker or a bystander, consider the man who stilled the waters; he can also still your heart on issues like this.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 14, 2017

 

05-07-17 JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD

JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD

John 10: 1-11

 

When babies enter this world they generally need at least two things in addition to proper food: one is to be feel secure. A baby is born; he or she may be placed in the mother’s arms, but then they are always wrapped in some kind of receiving blanket. They left the security and warmth of the mother’s womb and came into a world that is drastically different. Birth has some traumatic aspects to it, but one thing a child will want is security. Have you noticed how a nurse wraps the baby up in the receiving blanket? The baby is wrapped quite securely to give him or her the warmth and security they need. We need comfort, security, protection, and touch. Perhaps you remember studying the work of American psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1930s. He obtained rhesus monkeys, exposing some of them to touch and being held; others he fed and kept clean by mechanical means.  Not only did the baby monkeys that were held and touched thrive, the ones not touched actually failed to thrive and develop properly, even though they were fed.  In addition, the monkeys clearly imprinted on their mother, recognizing her face apart from every other face. The monkeys fed mechanically had no such opportunity. It is clear that security, and the face of parents, and the voice of parents, soothes and comforts the baby who gets to know the ones who offer that care and protection. The second thing babies need is protection; to feel safe. Security and protection go hand in hand throughout life. It is not just Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoons who carries around a blanket; many children, who are also well loved and protected, latch onto a security object.  It is natural. Through life many children, youth, and adults like to be held by someone special. Even at the end of life, human contact is so important even as it gets to be more difficult.

Today in John chapter 10, Jesus is offering grown men, and the crowd that is with them, images that hearken back to their deepest human needs. Years earlier in the book of Exodus, God was asking Moses to carry out the very important task of letting his people go. Moses replied: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your forbearers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses “I AM WHO I AM” which in Hebrew are the letters YHWH.  Fast forward to John’s gospel; John includes many things Jesus said that are called the “I am” sayings. It is a reminder that God-I AM-is a part of him; but also they are descriptive sayings Jesus says about himself. Let’s look at the passage.

 

In John chapter 10 we read: “Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” Jesus has an audience that knows something about what a shepherd did; we need a little explanation. At night a shepherd will generally corral his sheep in or around the entrance of a cave that he has thoroughly checked for animal predators or human bandits. Only when the sheep sense that their shepherd is sure that all is well will they lie down to rest. Sheep are skittish and nervous without a calm and protecting shepherd. The protected place he chooses he calls the “sheepfold.” It is too hard to protect 360 degrees by himself at night, so he places himself at the most vulnerable area, and never fully sleeps. He is alert and watching and listening. There is not actually a gate; he is the gate; it will be only over his dead body that somebody will harm his sheep. He will give his life for his sheep. Now do you see the beginnings of the analogy between a good shepherd and Jesus? Verse two: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” That is, no one else is permitted to come close to them; sheep only respond calmly to the face they know and the voice they recognize. Anyone, or anything else, startles them. And startled sheep don’t eat, they can lose weight, and their fur coat can get thin. The shepherd’s job is so important! If there is a gatekeeper in a ranch-like setting, he knows that shepherd and lets him in to see his sheep. “The sheep then hear his voice, he calls them by name, and he leads them out.” (verse 3) “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Do you hear those important words: “he goes ahead of them;” does it remind you of Jesus going “ahead” of us to Heaven? And the sheep “follow” him.  Jesus asked disciples to “follow him” as well. “Sheep will not follow a stranger.” With human freewill, how many people have gotten into trouble following a stranger? But with sheep, the shepherd says in so many words: “I’ve got you. Settle down. It’s just me.”

 

So Jesus is the gate. But he goes further: “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “What does that get us? We have learned: it gets us security and protection. But now we learn one other thing: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (verse 11) This is seen particular with new mothers in the animal kingdom. I just heard again this week of a mother hawk swooping down and drawing blood from the heads of passersby because her newborns are in the nest. She is protecting them. We know mama bears can be the fiercest of all animals when she is protecting her cubs. And you’ve heard of human parents willing to give their life for the sake of their child. It’s quite a gift, and our good shepherd provides it for not just “his sheep;” according to verse 7 and 11. He is for the sheep, not just his sheep. The same is true of Jesus’ death; it was a means of taking away the sin of the world; not just the sins of his flock. John himself recorded it in chapter 1 verse 29: John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and told his disciples: “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is for the world even if we’d just like him to just be for his sheep. He is bigger than that; he is more expansive than that. He is more loving than that. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And so he is. Thanks be to God that we have been given such a good shepherd. Otherwise, all we, like sheep, will easily go astray.

 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, also is the author of a book called The Lord is My Shepherd. In it he says: “To say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world, ever mindful of all the bad things that might happen to us and to those around us. The philosopher William James writes of ‘the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.’ But despite it all, we can get up every morning to face that world because we know that there is Someone in that world who cares about us and tries to keep us safe….The primary message of the twenty-third Psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us….but we will be able to face the world with more courage and more confidence because we will not be facing it alone.” (Alfred A. Knoff, 2003, p.15)

 

In Psalm 23 David said to God: “Thou preparest a table before me.” Today this table has been prepared for you. Prepare to eat; prepare to give thanks for Jesus; and realize how good it is to be in the flock of the good shepherd.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 7, 2017

04-30-17 EASTER 3A

There they are, these two disciples, as exhausted as they are discouraged as they trudge the seven miles from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. We don’t know why they have forsaken the company of their fellow disciples, only that they are now walking home. Perhaps it’s all they could think to do.

 

They knew Jesus, the one who they had followed, had counted on, was executed by the state. They know that some people came back, claiming that they the tomb was empty and there was an angel there. But they didn’t know for sure what had happened. All they really knew was that their time following Jesus from town to town, listening to his teachings had come to an end.

 

And then Jesus meets them on the way. He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them at home. He doesn’t expect them make some holy pilgrimage or undertake some pious feat. Rather, he meets them where they are: on the road, amid their journey, right smack in the middle of all the pain, frustration, and despondency that threatens to overwhelm them. Even though they don’t recognize him.

 

It’s hard to pay attention in the middle of crushed hopes, after all.

 

Jesus meets them and begins to talk to them and teach to them and gradually they perk up. Their “hearts catch fire” at his teachings and they come out of the dark place they had been.

 

But the thing that catches my eye in this passage is that little imperfect tense verb: “we had hoped.” Families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped … ,” they say, and then they go home alone. People use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away. The moment that catches me in this passage is that moment of deep disappointment, when only a painfully imperfect verb tense will express what needs to be said.

 

There are few things more tragic than a dead future. Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.

 

The disciples had been hoping that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but the events of the past days had brought an end to that habit of hoping. The Messiah was supposed to clear out the Romans, was supposed to save their entire people from oppression and opposition. Jesus was supposed to save them all, not die a traitor’s death at the hands of the people he should have overthrown.

 

Even if that nonsense about his coming back was true, the future these disciples had hoped for, would never come true now.

 

“But we had hoped …” I love those heartbreaking words not because I enjoy wallowing in dark or sentimental emotions, but because they ring true to me. They are not the only truth, of course; there is much in  this life that is beautiful, daring, confident, inspiring, and more, all of which deserves our gratitude. But there is also disappointment, heartbreak, and failure.

 

We have a tendency to want to gloss over the disappointments, the heartbreaks, the failures. We want to skip to the end. That’s true with the church when we celebrate Palm Sunday and follow it with Easter while not paying attention to anything in between. But Easter only matters because we have Good Friday. Because Jesus really dies and that breaks hearts and destroys hopes and leaves people lost. Just because we know the end of the story, doesn’t mean that the people living through it did.

 

And it’s not just with the church. We want to do it with the rest of our lives, don’t we?’

 

A friend shares the news of a death of his sister, and we sympathize for a moment before changing the topic. Or a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting a promotion, and we remind her that at least she has a job. Or we see an acquaintance we know has just gone through a dreadful loss, and we avoid him or her altogether because we just don’t know what to say. We don’t mean to be callous or insensitive, we are just at such a loss with loss. We feel inadequate to the task of confronting the darkness of our lives and this world and so we flee to the light because it’s easier to deal with.

 

Not that there are right things to say all the time. Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge the loss and sit with other person in their pain. Sometimes we are called to walk along the road with them, and listen to the hopes that were dashed. Sometime after that loss is acknowledged, then we can start to point out the new thing that can come from it.  Not right away though.  First, people need time to know that the dark they are in is acknowledged, shared, accepted. And the time they need is different for everyone.

 

People need to be invited and allowed to grieve a future that will never be in order that they may possibly hear and receive the future God has created and prepared for them. Even if something new is coming, even if something better will come out of it, first you have to face the “We had hoped” moments.

 

The scene, to be sure, ends with joy and excitement. It ends with them thrilled to discover that death and resurrection are deeply rooted in both Jewish Scripture and Jewish tradition, so that Jesus’ crucifixion actually fits into a pattern that can arguably be seen throughout God’s dealings with the Jewish people. It ends with them recognizing that Jesus had been with them the entire time, walking with them as they grieved and showing them how even in the darkest places in their lives, God was at work.

 

The story of Easter, the story of the resurrection, is a story for those who “had hoped.” It’s a story for the disappointed and the broken. The story of Easter is not just a story for the people who have it all together. To the faithful women at the tomb, to the skeptics demanding proof, to the disappointed who are trudging home, Jesus shows up. That is the joy of the Easter message, it is for us all, no matter where we are at in our journey.

 

When Jesus spoke to the disciples on the road, the words that were being given weren’t entirely making sense to them, not until later. But because they had someone with them who was listening to their pain and  engaging with them in their grief, they invited him in for the night.  Not because they understood so much as because they were still curious or perhaps grateful for a new understanding of that life on which their hope was based. They went beyond their grief and reached out to another.

 

It’s okay to grieve over missed hopes. It’s okay to take the time to mourn, Jesus will walk with you as you do. And if you know someone who is grieving, take the time to walk with them, to listen to them, even if they can’t give much back yet.

 

As Christians, we are the people of the Resurrection. That means we all go through Good Friday. We all go through our own Holy Saturday when what we had hoped so hard for is buried in the tomb. Just like Jesus did, we are called to walk with one another in the dark times, listening to the stories and offering words of comfort when they will be heard.

 

And gradually we find ways to turn from “We had hoped” into “We hope” again.

04-23-17 THE POWER OF DOUBTING DOUBTS

THE POWER OF DOUBTING DOUBTS

John 20: 19-31

 

This month I have shared with my Bible Study groups why the old adage “seeing is believing” is not necessarily true. Last summer Mary Ann and I went to an illusionist show on a cruise ship. We were quite close to the stage and I was sure that, if I watched a trick closely that I might see how it was done. Like people from Missouri, “The Show Me State,” say “I’m from Missouri, so you’ll have to show me,” I tend to want to believe my eyes. Well the illusionist indicated he was about to saw a woman in two! My eyes were pealed! He had her climb into a long box. I saw her face and her feet the whole time: her face smiled and her feet wiggled-even as he cut the big long box in half!  Her face still smiled and winked; her feet still moved and toes still wiggled. He spun the boxes around, hooked them back together, opened the box, and brought out a full woman without a drop of blood on her! So did he cut her in half? If not, how did he do it? My eyes couldn’t tell me.

 

In New Testament times, many things were taken on sight and, as today, on the word of the best scholars that could be found. When Jesus gave the great commission found in Matthew 28, most who heard “go into all the world” had no idea how big the world was. There were Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks in basically what we now call the Middle East. Even wise men who came from the East to see the Christ Child came from Persia, not from China. When Paul went to Rome, and Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus among other places, Paul believed he was fulfilling that Great Commission.  But the world they knew was flat; no one yet believed the world was round. There were sea monsters at the edge of the world and in the depth of the ocean. People believed their eyes and often the stories that others told. The end of the earth was believed to be the sightline horizon beyond which a person could not see.  People believed in what they could see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.

 

In many ways, we are like those New Testament people. We may not call ourselves doubting, but we can be suspicious. I have noticed that some in our congregation answer the phone more harshly than before, perhaps because each phone call raises the suspicion that a telemarketer is on the other end of the phone. I suspect that, out of loneliness or the hunger for a relationship, they have gotten talked into revealing credit information or into paying for a product they didn’t need. Let’s not let ourselves off of the hook either: we have also been duped now and then by someone. Every time I’m approached by a person with a sad story about loss, my doubt rises.  I’ve heard so many of the stories before. And there are plenty of con artists amidst the homeless population of genuine need. So I try to tamp down my doubts.  In the days of Jesus, Thomas might have been fooled before by a huckster trying to take his land, a woman selling him the wrong herbs as medicine, or a man selling him sick animals for full price. Who knows? We can look in the mirror and see the reflections of a person who also doubts there. Then we strengthen our resolve and risk being rude to our friends and we declare that “we won’t get fooled again!”

 

Look at the traps we can fall into if we trust our senses rather than our faith: a person driving down I-95 along the east coast of Florida, one who never had a day in a geography class, might declare that the earth is flat. I-95 is one of the flattest spans of land this side of West Texas, another flat land!  Long after Jesus walked the earth—almost 1500 years in fact—Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal, after studying astronomy and navigation, proposed that he could sail west to get to the Spice Islands near the Philippines in a shorter time than sailing east around the tip of Africa.  His own king refused to fund such an experiment. He later when to Spain and convince Charles I to fund it. In 1419 he set out, but Magellan never completed his voyage. Before completing his voyage, he died in a conflict in the Philippines in 1521. But remnants of his crew did finish the trip, proving a person could get to land east by sailing west. The earth was indeed round! But it is almost imperceptible to the naked eye, which fooled the brain into thinking there was a drop-off at the end of our sight line.

 

We needn’t click our tongues or wag our heads at Thomas’s reaction to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Thomas could be any one of us. We all need reassurances that what we believe are not lies and what we see are not tricks. And some have been so hurt by pranks at school, on teams, in fraternities, or in groups that their trust is very low. So many people, in a casual reading, cast dispersions on the one who doubts.  But doubts are natural aren’t they? Who before Jesus arose from the dead? Even Lazarus was still in the tomb. Plenty of people in our own day need to see the body of a deceased loved one to accept that she or he is dead. In our day there are fake Ids, fake Facebook posts, and fake claims online that a bank needs your information or they will close your account.  Yet people still want to see amazing sights with their own eyes. Why have people over the years poured into arenas to see Cirque du Solei shows, or gathered to watch Evel Knievel fly through the air over cars on a motorcycle, watch the Great Wallendas walk on a tight rope without a net? It’s because we have to see it for ourselves. Doubt Thomas is alive and well today.  He lives in me; doesn’t he live in you too, or in people you know?  But the beauty of doubt is that it leads to questions and searching. If doubt is not left to fester, it will produce a fire-tested faith instead of a fragile faith.  How many of us join the man who one approached Jesus and declared: “I believe! Help me with the things I have trouble believing!”

Harry Emerson Fosdick was the Pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City. His most famous sermon on this subject was “The Importance of Doubting your Doubts” where he suggests if we are going to doubt most everything unbelievable that comes our way, then we should give the same scrutiny to our doubts. Always remember to doubt your doubts as well! In other words, what man could jump through the air on a motorcycle over dozens of cars? Who would believe that seven family members could walk across a tight rope together and make it safely to the other side?  At some point, people doubted that the sound barrier could be broken. At some point, people doubted that a plane could fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  And Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive again. But he was; and he is! God always tries to give us enough information and evidence to produce faith, without requiring proof. The principle I have followed for years is a restatement of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The restatement is: Too much proof can make faith dissipate. It’s one thing to have faith that Jesus arose from the dead; it’s another to require evidence. There were plenty of people 1400 years after Jesus walked the earth that were taught that the earth was flat. Some might have believed that the earth was round, but not one had proved it. Today, God tries to give our faith enough undergirding to help us believe that, long ago, Jesus did what he needed to do to help Thomas believe: “Put your finger here” he said, “and see my hands. Reach out and put your hand in my side. Do not doubt, but believe!” I believe that today God is still giving us clues to reassure us. I also believe God is with us, though I can’t prove it. And I believe Jesus loves me, though I can prove it. I believe the sun will set tonight, though I can’t prove it. Much of my life is based on faith, and when new seemingly impossible news comes my way like “Jesus is back, just as he promised,” I would need to go and check it out!

 

Still I leave room for wonder, and for possibility. Time and time again, our loving God doesn’t want to leave us faithless nor cynical. For eyes that are open, God gives enough evidence to promote faith, but not turn it into proof.  That message is from God, who is immortal and invisible and yet present. Jesus longs to dispel doubts, and but also open shut doors. In the midst of doubting many things that cross your path, be sure to also doubt your doubts.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   April 24, 2017

 

 

04-16-17 THE DAY WHEN JOY TRUMPED FEAR

THE DAY WHEN JOY TRUMPED FEAR

Matthew 28: 1-10

 

The Rev Samuel Son, Co-Pastor at a new Presbyterian Worshipping Community in Raleigh, North Carolina, had these thoughts published in a journal last month:

If the church no longer seems to matter in the Western world, it is because Easter no longer matters to the church the way it should. The church doesn’t make the emperor’s knees knock any more—nor that of CEOs or anyone with institutional power—as the early church did, because resurrection has been shaved into a synonym for the spring return of flowers and birds. Easter Sunday is not much more than a Christianized spring festival with bunnies…and no longer a commitment of everything to the death-shattering event of the empty tomb. A shriveled grape doesn’t make good wine, and a mythological resurrection can’t sustain the church against the powers of the world. [Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 199, No. 5, p. 12]

 

I do not believe in a mythological resurrection; Jesus arose from the dead! But it’s food for thought, isn’t it? People most often hope the resurrection is real especially when they are facing the end of their life or the life of a loved one.  But had you considered the watershed, earth-shaking news and its effect our daily lives: that Christ’s birth changed the calendar because he arose from the dead? If that had not happened, no one would be marking his birth in our day. So Jesus rising from the dead did change the world! How much has it changed you and the way you live, and more particularly, how has it changed what you think about when facing a loved one’s death? One other person wrote this about the impact of Easter:

Resurrection was like the Big Bang of creation. The Big Bang theory  cannot provide explanation for its own initial condition. It is not repeatable…. The blast of the Big Bang is the galaxies, the stars, the earth. The blast of the resurrection is the miraculous and missional birth of the church: Galilean peasants venturing to neighboring Samaria, then as far as Spain and Syria.

Are there kernels of Christianity still planted in Syria? Yes. But the weeds of evil are growing and choking them. We face the Crucified Christ and the Risen Christ with the backdrop of an international chess game of power and destruction. Battles are being fought as a backdrop to our Easter services.

 

I am reminded of the 2 minute rendition that Simon and Garfunkel produced in 1966, when they began a song with actual snippets of news stories from August 3rd that year, that included racial aggression, deaths in Vietnam, drug overdoses, people stabbed and even strangled. The news reports start to fade into the background as Simon and Garfunkel offer their luscious harmonies singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  The song was called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night. We, in turn, hear the news that bombs are dropped and people are gassed as we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”  What juxtapositions of reality and hope.

 

Carl Hopkins Elmore once told of a Jewish rabbi who was so moved and disturbed by the maltreatment of his race in certain sections of the world that he sent an appeal to all Christendom on the eve of another Easter: “I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity.  To this end I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter to signify Christ realized and not merely Christ risen.” What did he mean exactly by this distinction between Christ risen and Christ realized? Christ realized means Christian faith is alive when it impacts our daily realities. It means we hope that Christ comes out from the annals of history to be a redeeming force for humanity because good Christian men and women are choosing to act: to do something instead of doing nothing, or letting others do something instead. Christ risen is a common chorus for all congregations on Easter, but Christ realized means that sleeves have to be rolled up, votes cast, and changes be made regarding injustice and forgottenness.

The Apostle Paul wrote it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation. The past is finished and gone. … And he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He did not give us the ministry of apathy or of annihilation. Do we then downplay the Risen Christ? By no means! Ours would be a hollow and groundless faith were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed “very God;” who also lived a human existence that reflected things never before seen or known on earth; who taught a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to frame; who embraced the Will of God so completely that he himself was truth; and who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the power of Satan. Plus, somehow after death, he appeared again to vindicate his claims! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impulse and impetus behind the highest and best in our civilization and culture. It is evident in the art and sculpture of Raphael, DaVinci, and Michelangelo; in the music of Handel, Bach, And Beethoven. And it inspired the poetry of Dante, Milton, and Browning.

One of my professors from Princeton Seminary, the late Dr. Donald Macleod said this:

Who among us is happy over what we think and do on Easter Day? Is

that not enough? It becomes increasingly apparent that the fact of Christ risen is not enough. And it will continue to be so, until we turn a first century fact into a living twentieth century reality….This goes to the heart of our worship when we praise God on Sunday and cheat our brother or sister on Monday.”

 

Today, let’s connect the dots between actions during a fateful week in the first century, and actions we may choose to take, this week and later, in the twenty-first century. In the upper room that Passover week, on the day we now call Maundy Thursday, a new commandment was given—Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you,” and a new covenant was sealed. By Friday morning Jesus was on his way to the cross. God in Christ would suffer and die for us. Jesus breathed his last and died as the shofar was blown in the Temple announcing the sacrifice of the lamb for the sins of the Jews. At that specific time, Jesus: the Lamb of God, gave up his spirit just outside the walls of Jerusalem, paying the price for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus died at the traditional hour of lamb sacrifice: 3:00 p.m. A man moved to action—Joseph of Arimathea, asked for the body of Jesus after he died. He wanted to give him a proper burial.. He asked the authorities Jesus’ body and lovingly buried him in his family tomb. Jewish law said unequal things could not be yoked together, so no one in his family could  be buried in that family tomb since Jesus had been buried there first. Yet Joseph still offered his tomb—a very costly gift. Early in Jesus’ ministry, fisherman dropped their nets and chose to follow him, at great personal cost. What is the cost of following Christ for you? Have you counted the cost and said “Yes?” How can we show our gratitude for a God who loves us unconditionally, and a Savior who has unlocked the gates of Heaven? Christians remember the resurrected Christ around the world today saying: “Together we are the body of Christ, and individually members of Him.”  Let others see Jesus through you. And let his resurrection change your life.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           April 16, 2017