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09-20 - Philip

As we have discussed during the last couple of weeks, I want us to explore the lives of some New Testament people and to see their lives through their encounters with Christ.  We spoke about Anna, the prophetess and Mary, mother of Jesus. Today I would like us to look at man, one of the Twelve, who was called Philip.

We first become acquainted with Philip through the ministry of John the Baptist.  Philip was in the area where John was preaching and baptizing and he in the company of other men from his town.  We are told that Andrew and his brother Peter present and that the three of them, Philip, Andrew, and Peter were from the same town of Bethsaida (Bet’ – say – da). The name of the town meant “house of fishing” which seems appropriate for the disciples and their profession.  Also by way of background, we need to know that Philip’s name is of Greek origin.  The Greeks, under Alexander, had conquered and ruled the territory of Palestine spreading Greek culture and language.  His name in Greek meant “fond of horses.”  

As we said, Philip was at the area of John the Baptist.  This suggests to us that Philip was someone who was searching for a deeper meaning to his beliefs.  He was there to hear John preach and, although we do not know for certain, he might have been baptized by John.  Jesus was present at that same time and had just been baptized by John.  Philip must have caught the attention of Jesus because Scripture tells us in John 1:43:

The next day [that is after his baptism] Jesus decided to leave for Galilee.  Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” 

Here the Greek to “follow” means to be in the same way with, that is, to accompany, specifically as a disciple.  The term here is not limited to physically following someone on a journey.  It is call to follow me and become like me.  We see here that Jesus sought Philip.  Their meeting does not seem to be by chance nor does it sound like their first encounter.  Jesus is leaving the area but first wanted to find Philip.

What was Philip’s response to Jesus’ invitation? Let’s look at John 1:44 and 45:

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Although Philip’s immediate verbal response to Jesus was not recorded, we do get a sense that he was excited about having been asked and intended to follow him.  Moreover, his excitement is such that he wanted to share his news with someone who must have been close to him – Nathanael.  Philip, who Jesus found, now finds Nathanael.  He tells him about Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.  This tells us that Philip had enough conversation with or about Jesus to know of where he came from and of his assumed heritage. However, more importantly Philip told Nathanael that “we” have found the one – implying that Philip and others (perhaps Andrew) were of the same mindset about Jesus spiritual identity.  He believed Jesus to be the Prophet spoken about by Moses.  We heard the description from our Old Testament reading today in Deuteronomy 18:18:

18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.

Philip perceived Jesus to be a great Prophet.  One who would be powerful in word and deed.  He would be one who would lead the Jews back to the relationship they once had with God and with the Promised Land.

So what can we learn about and from Philip in his initial encounter with Jesus?  The first thing we learn is that Philip was responsive to the stirring within him to seek the deeper truth of God.  He wanted to know God and to be right with God.  He was in the presence of the Baptizer who called for repentance.  He was open to the leading of God and his need to seek his righteousness.  We need to remember that everyday God is calling us to come closer to him.  He wants us to give up struggling with our natural will and to come to him.  We can learn from Philip by being open to the leading of the Spirit and follow the call on our lives.  The second thing we can learn about Philip is that he wanted to share what God had revealed to him.  When Jesus found him and asked him to follow him, Philip immediately went and found his friend.  He must have cared more about his friend coming to know Jesus than he cared about what his friend might have said in response to his invitation.  Philip had decided to follow Jesus but thought it sweeter to have someone he cared for come with him.  This raises the question to us.  Do we care more about having someone come with us as we follow Jesus than we do that they might reject our invitation?  Are we as excited as Philip, and willing to go and find our friend? Philip probably had an idea how his friend would react.  When Philip told Nathanael about Jesus and where he is from, Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael was showing his prejudice and sharp tongue.  However, Philip was undeterred.  He took no personal sense of rejection from Nathanael’s comment.  He responded simply by saying, “Come and see.”  Philip has given us the best response to rejection of the invitation.  Calmly and with the peace of Christ, he simply said, “Come and see” then you decide for yourself.  We all can follow the Philip’s example - invite people we care about to come and see the Lord. Each of us has a Nathanael in our life. We have someone in mind that does not know the Lord or we have someone who has not been with him lately.  However, are each of us a Philip and willing to find your friend and say I want you to come with me to be with the Lord – won’t you just come and see?  I leave you to ponder that question.

We see Philip again later in Jesus’ ministry.  They are in the vicinity of Bethsaida.  A great crowd of people had followed Jesus because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick.  Jesus went up onto the mountainside and sat down with his disciples.  We pick up the story in John 6:5-6:

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Jesus’ question is natural to ask of Philip since he was from that region. He asked, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" Philip does not answer the question, at least not the one asked by Jesus. Phillip’s response is "A month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite." This does not answer the question where are we going to buy food.  Philip’s response told us what he was thinking, “Why discuss where to buy the bread when we do not have enough money to buy all that would be need for a crowd of this size?”  Jesus understood that they could not buy enough bread.  He only wanted to know from Philip of the possible source of bread the crowd.  Philip’s response is completely and clearly human.  We do not want to act unless we understand the whole picture.  We want to know that all the resources are accounted for and that we cannot fail.  Once we know all the facts, then we might be willing to proceed with acting.  Jesus was asking Philip for a demonstration of faith through dependence on God.  Jesus knew that God had always provided sufficiently for his people.  Scripture tells us that Jesus was testing Philip. He wanted Philip to be part of the miracle that Jesus would perform in which he did by feeding 5000.  In the process, Jesus was also teaching Philip to expand his minded and come to understand that Jesus was far greater than any prophet spoken about in the Old Testament.  Moses was able to feed the Israelites in the wilderness to the grace of God heaven. Jesus had performed miracles for many and now intended to show that there was no limit to the power available to Christ. Philip’s response suggests that he had not yet grasped who was in his presence.

We can learn from Philip that God will place opportunities before us to expand our understanding of his love for us and his capacity to provide for us.  Do we, like Philip, miss these opportunities because we are too interested in knowing God's entire plan before we move forward?  Are we willing to step out in faith and do as he asks us?  When faced with daunting challenges as Philip was in feeding the 5000, are we willing to step out in faith and simply find a source of bread without fully understanding how that source will be sufficient?  Faith requires that we proceed one step at a time without knowing with certainty how the journey will be completed but only knowing that the one who guides us love us.  Look today for the opportunities God is giving you to act in faith.

We meet Philip again in John 12:20 -- 21:

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus."

At this time, Jesus was preaching to crowd and a group of Greeks approached.  Here, in this context, most likely the term “Greeks” means they were Gentiles attracted to Judaism, to its high moral standards.  They would not likely however have been true converts to Judaism itself. This Scripture reveals to us some important truths about Philip.  The first truth is that Philip must have been identifiable as a follower of Christ.  The Greeks knew enough to ask Philip for the opportunity to speak to Jesus.  Do others see us that way?  Do others see in us the presence of Christ? Do they see us as identifiable as Christians?

Let me illustrate this point with an example through my own life. In my day job, I am a senior government manager responsible for security at a number of nuclear facilities throughout the country.  One day a contractor mail handler asked my secretary if he could speak with me.  She ushered the man into my office.  He was somewhat nervous given the difference in our positions but he pulled out a small pamphlet with a question on it. The question was "Do you know if you're going to heaven?"  He asked me if I knew if I was going to heaven.  We had a good conversation and I told him that I believe I would go to heaven.  However, this experience told me two things.  The first was this man was not sure that I was identifiable as a Christian.  Why else would he have asked me that question about going to heaven?  The second thing it told me was that he was more concerned that I would go to heaven then he was about my reaction to his question.  At that moment, he was acting like Philip and I was his Nathanael.  That experience caused me to look differently at how my conduct and demeanor would demonstrate to others that I was identifiable with Christ.  I needed to reflect that Christian is not a Secret Service job.  How about you?  Are you identifiable to those around you as a Christian?  Do they recognize you as someone that might introduce them to Christ?  It has been asked before but if Christianity became a crime; would there be enough evidence available to convict you?  It certainly was true of Philip because he was identifiable as a follower of Christ.

The second thing this short encounter with the Greeks revealed to us about Philip was that he was not only identifiable as a follower of Christ but also that he was accessible.  We would do well to understand that our ability to witness to others is related to how accessible we are to them.  Philip, as we recall who may have been of Greek origin, may have been seen as more approachable and accessible to the Greeks seeking Jesus. We can then learn from Philip that we need to be accessible to others.  Are we accessible to others or do we only associate with other Christians? Are we not accessible to others who may be seeking Christ?  We therefore should look for opportunities to be with others who we share interests with, be accessible to them, so that they too may come to us, identify us as followers of Christ, and ask how we too can see Jesus.

We encounter Philip again later in the Gospel of John.  Jesus told his disciples that he would soon be leaving them and going to a place where they could not follow him.  We pick up the story at John 14:5 -- 7:

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus answered him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you know him and have seen him." 

This is a very important passage.  Jesus is using the very powerful "I am" statement.  He said, "I am the way".  Following in his way does not just mean physically but it means following what I have revealed to you.  It means you need to desire the things Jesus’ desires, live and love as he lived and loved. This is the direction Jesus is calling us to follow and that in doing so we will come into the presence of the eternal loving God.  He is telling us that no one comes to the Father except through me.  This is hard for many to accept because there is no room for negotiating.  Jesus is accessible to all but all are accessible to God only through Jesus.  Being good, doing good, or being the child of Christian parents or being from any other religion simply will not suffice.  All of these approaches to God no matter how noble necessarily deny Christ.  Jesus made it clear, you cannot get to the Father through such ways.  This is the good news of Jesus that salvation is accessible to all but at the same time is reserved exclusively for those who call upon his name and live according to his will.

Philip now enters the scene for his final act: 

Phillips said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."

Here Philip does not seem to understand what Jesus has revealed to him.  He does not seem to appreciate that he has seen through the life Christ the living God.  Jesus responds but not in anger or resentment. He says somewhat painfully:

"Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say ‘show me the Father?’  Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?  The words I say to you are not just my own.  Rather, it is the Father, living in me who is doing his work.  Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

So what can we learn about Philip through this encounter?  Philip wanted to see the Father and he knew that Jesus could show him.  However, Philip still thought Jesus was strictly human, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph son.  He did not understand, he did not comprehend the miracles and the love Jesus had shown as evidence of God living among.  However, we should not be too harsh on Philip for at times we seem to behave in the same manner.  At times, we do not see that Christ has shown us who the Father is.  We need to understand that Jesus is in the Father, the Father is in him.  When we believe that, then Jesus is in us, and we are in him. Through his grace, we then can come into the presence of God the Father. And in that love relationship we come to love one another.  The love we have for the Father is shared with those around us, united by Christ upon the cross.  Philip understood that Jesus could show him the Father.  He did not however understand that Jesus had already done so.  Do we understand that?  Do we see in Christ his revelation of the nature and the character of God?  How awesome and wonderful he is.

Today we have seen Christ through the eyes of one of his disciples, Philip. We have seen Philip is a man seeking Christ, a man willing to share the good news of his discovery with those that he loved.  We came to see Philip also has a man who was growing in his faith and learning to rely upon the grace of God.  As he matured, he became identifiable with Christ, accessible and approachable to others who are seeking Jesus. Though he did not fully understand Jesus, he knew that all things were possible through him.  How are we exhibiting the attitude of Philip?  Are we willing to seek Christ, share him with others, grow in our faith, be identifiable as a follower of Christ accessible and approachable to others who are seeking him, and do we fully understand that all things are possible through him? May God grant us the humility, the wisdom, the courage, and the grace to be a maturing disciple willing to invite others to come and see.   Amen.

09-13 - Andrew

            This morning I would like us to consider Christian character through the exploration of the first of the called apostles, Andrew.  Although, first called, Andrew was one of the least conspicuous apostles; yet he was very effective in ministry.  There is an immediate lesson for all of us from observing Andrew.  Key among those lessons is this: every person, regardless of the size of his or her voice is significant to and valued by God.  Every person, regardless of the age or size can be a powerful minister to others through Jesus.

We begin looking at the Christian character and these lessons through the person of Andrew in our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, starting at verse 35.  This passage begins on page 92 of the New Testament section of the pew Bibles. As this scene opens up, we find ourselves in the wilderness of ancient Israel, along the River Jordan; a place we can still find today.  The river serves as a boundary line these days between the modern nations of Israel and Kingdom of Jordan.  It was in this remote location that we find a man named John engaged in baptizing people of all social class.  John’s baptism, being submerged under the waters of the river, was an outward sign of a decision by those being baptized to repent; that is to change the direction of their life from self-oriented to God-centered.  When John baptized he called on people to show evidence that with God at the center of their lives their conduct with other people now would be different.  John was a bit of an odd character who distinguished himself by living in the wilderness on locust and honey and being fashionably dressed in camel hair clothing. In this small, out of the way place, far from the major cities, John said of himself, he was just one voice speaking into the wilderness.  He was faithful and patient to do what God wanted him to do.

Patience and faithfulness are often in short supply.  In the Book of Exodus, we learned that Moses was upon the mountain speaking with God while the people of Israel camped near the base of the wilderness mountain.  The people of Israel grew impatient, believing Moses was gone too long on the mountain and that his fate was now uncertain.  So the people, together with Moses’ brother Aaron, collected all of their gold together, melted it, and formed a golden calf; an object that they could see, they polish to shine in the sun, and carry with them.  They declared the golden calf the source of their freedom from Egypt and set about to worship the golden calf.  We hear those words and might say to ourselves, “How silly.  How much more advanced are we than them.  We would never worship an object.”  Anyone holding onto their phone at this moment?  The people were faithless and impatient.  They wanted things to happen on their timetable and in their way. They were self-centered and unwilling to live in accordance with God’s standards.  When Moses, this historically great leader and powerful speaker, came down off the mountain and called the people to repent; change the direction of their lives from self to God.  That message must be said over and over.

As we look to our New Testament text, John the Baptist is doing the same thing; calling people to turn from self and toward God.  John was a powerful speaker with a personality that could attract others to hear his message to change.  One of those people who heard John’s message in the wilderness was a young man named Andrew.

Andrew was a fisherman, physically strong from throwing nets into the Sea of Galilee and pulling them onto the shore or into his boat.  He lived in a small town of Bethsaida, in the northern part of Israel.  Yet, as we open our New Testament text today we will discover that Andrew is now 85 miles south of his home and is a disciple, a follower, of John the Baptist. Andrew knew John well.

Verse 35, “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.”

Let’s take a moment and look at what we know about Andrew from this short passage.  Andrew was present at the side of John the Baptist, supporting and serving John’s historic mission to all the people calling them to focus their hearts and minds first on God and then live with others from God’s perspective.  At first, Andrew was unnamed; he was just a disciple of John’s standing next to John.  Yet, he was open to God’s leading and when he saw Jesus, and heard John’s testimony, that this is God’s Lamb, Andrew knew then that Jesus was a person through whom Andrew could experience God in a personal and powerful way.  In a book by Christian philosopher, Elton Trueblood, he wrote, “because persons are superior, in kind, not only to all things but even to all ideas, I need a person to whom I can give myself and thereby find myself.”  Jesus was God incarnate, meaning in the person.  Andrew could see that and followed the person Jesus because Jesus was superior to anything, idea, or other person.  When asked by Jesus, “What do you want?” Andrew’s reply to Jesus, in essence, was to be wherever Jesus called home.  Through Andrew we see Christian character begins with repentance; changing our focus from self to God.  From Andrew we also see that to understand what that means to be God focused, we need to experience the personality of God by spending time with the person of Jesus.

Andrew spent the day with Jesus and then with the perspective of God he knew how he must deal with other people.  What did Andrew do?   Verse 41, “He [Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him [Simon], ‘We have found the Messiah!’”  Andrew understood that Jesus was the person sent by God to make right all things. This was news that Andrew now equipped with God’s perspective could not imagine keeping to himself.  Verse 42, “He [Andrew] brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”  Andrew the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist had become the first disciple of Jesus and the first to share the good news of what it meant to be wherever Jesus was. To whom did he share that news? It would be his brother, a very dominate personality; so dominate that Andrew is introduced to us as Simon Peter’s brother.  We learn though that being the dominate personality in the room meant nothing to Andrew.  Knowing that his role was to follow Jesus and then introduce others to Jesus was foremost in his mind.  Andrew demonstrates to us the Christian character is more often found in the small acts of life being inconspicuous at times and yet ministering to others as God sees them.  The Christian character is not about being the biggest voice or the most prominent person in the room.  Small voices matter and that sharing the experience of Jesus is not just something to do, it is a need within each Christian.

Let me give you an example of small voices from the fourth century.  An Asian monk, named Telemachus, was living in a little remote village, spending most of his time in prayer or tending the garden.  One day, he thought he heard the voice of God telling him to go to Rome. Believing in what he heard, he set out. Weeks and weeks later, he arrived in Rome.  He followed a crowd into the Coliseum, and there he saw the gladiators come forth, stand before the Emperor, and say, ``We who are about to die salute you.'' Telemachus realized to his horror they were going to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowds.  He cried out, ``In the name of Christ, stop!'' However, his small voice was lost in the noise of the crowd in the great Coliseum.  As the games began, he made his way down through the crowd, climbed over the wall, and dropped to the floor of the arena.  Suddenly the crowds saw this scrawny little figure making his way out to the gladiators and saying, over and over again, ``In the name of Christ, stop.''  They thought it was part of the entertainment, and at first, they were amused. Then, when they realized it was not part of the show, they grew belligerent and angry.   As Telemachus pled with the gladiators, ``In the name of Christ, stop,'' one of them plunged his sword into Telemachus’ body.  He fell to the sand of the arena in death, his last words of his small voice were, ``In the name of Christ, stop.''  It was then that, a strange thing happened.  Silence fell over the Coliseum.  Then somewhere from the upper tiers of the great stadium, an individual made his way to an exit and left, and others began to follow.  In the dead silence, everyone left the Coliseum. That was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Coliseum.  Never again, did men enter the stadium to kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd.  Lives changed that day because one small voice hardly heard above the noise said in peace but a few words. ``In the name of Christ, stop.''

Andrew, in our Scripture today, said in a small voice to his brother, “We have found the Messiah.”  With those few words, the model for sharing the experience of Christ was born.  It is what each of us can and must imitate today; invite others we know to experience the person of Jesus.

Later in the New Testament, we see Andrew appear again. Some 5,000 people had gathered to hear Jesus teach and now they needed food.  Jesus said to his disciples, “You feed them.”  His disciples were dumbfounded.  How could they feed 5, 000 people?  Andrew appeared with a small boy at his side and said to Jesus, “Here is boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Andrew, the follower of Christ, did not understand how all things would work but he was willing to introduce people to Jesus and faithful enough to know that even small offerings in Jesus’ hands could yield mighty works.  It does not take much to change someone’s life. I am learning that through ministry of those suffering in grief.  We cannot solve the big problem that people face; the loss of someone they love. Yet, in small things, such as just listening to their stories and fears, our presence is a great comfort and serves as a reminder that God is real and present in this world.  Are we following Andrew’s model and being faithful in many small things that comprise our lives?

We have one final example of Andrew’s character in Scripture.  Jesus was again speaking and some Greeks approached one of the disciples, Philip, and asked if they too might meet Jesus.  Philip, unsure of himself, sought out Andrew.  Andrew brought Philip and the Greeks with him to meet Jesus.  The character of Andrew was that of someone who was willing to invest time in others.  Andrew wanted Philip to overcome his uncertainty and become a more productive disciple.  Andrew put aside whatever occupied him at that moment and helped Philip.  Some time ago, I attended a meeting this week among the clergy and representatives from the school system.  One of the issues I encouraged school administators to explore was to tap the resource among our churches that have many seasoned people capable of serving as mentors for students.  Andrew exhibited the character of mentoring by walking with Philip as Philip learned how to meet the needs of people who approached him.  Even if work with the schools does not lead to a formal mentorship program, each Christian should model Andrew’s character and behavior by mentoring others.  It is part of having a Christ centered focus to life and with that perspective knowing how to treat other people.  We need to make ourselves available to others.  What we know and our experience with Jesus is of great value, that God perspective, but it is only valuable if we use it and share it with someone.  If we hold onto what we know and do not share it, it does not have the full value God intended.  Andrew understood.  His focus was on God by experiencing Jesus.  From that vantage point, Andrew then understood how to treat others.

We can learn much about the nature of Christian life by carefully observing the character of Christians God put in our path through the Scriptures.  Andrew was one of those people.  He was a man willing to be overshadowed by other personalities; it did not keep him from his primary mission of introducing others to Jesus.  Andrew was willing to be faithful in small things; he knew small things in God’s hands yield great results.  Andrew was willing to mentor others; he knew the power of ministry only increases when we equip others to meet their full potential. Andrew was a sharing individual because his heart was focused on God, he was experiencing God in a personal way through Jesus, and he was willing to then see others as God sees them and minister to them.  We should follow Andrew’s example of faithfulness, patience, and concern for others from a God centered life, rich with our personal experiences of Jesus. Amen and Amen.

2020-09-06 - Fellowship With God

Our Old Testament reading today spoke of Abraham desire to eat with three visitors who arrived at his tent.  Our New Testament reading spoke of Paul’s desire to break bread with members of the church of Troas.  We can all relate to stories involving food because all of us eat. A study concluded that an American who lives to age 70 will have spent 6 of those 70 years doing nothing but eating. Think about that for a moment; we will spend more than 6 years of our life just chewing and swallowing food.

            But eating is not simply about giving our body the calories it needs to survive.  Eating is most often done in the company of another person because eating is a social activity that feeds our need to relate to other people.  Everyone here needs food for the body and fellowship with other people.  We were not designed to live completely alone.  In fact, the very first thing God said was “not good” was loneliness.  God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  So, in addition to pangs of hunger emanating from our stomachs demanding that we eat, we have pangs of loneliness that demand that we fellowship with other people. Eating and sharing a meal are good for us because it meets many needs.

            Now God makes use of our need to eat and be in fellowship with others to address a broader truth about us.  That truth is that each of us is made up of a body, a mind, and a spirit or soul.  Our bodies are made of flesh, blood, and bone that we can examine with our own senses like sight, hearing, smell, and touch.  No one disputes we have a physical body.  We also have a mind that is the accumulation of our experiences. Our mind gives us the capacity to remember and to imagine.  No one disputes we have a mind.  We need to be careful about what we fed our minds.  But we are more than mind and body.  We are also made up of a spirit.  Although we cannot sense our spirit by sight, hearing, smell, or touch, no one really disputes we have a spirit whether they believe in Christ or they believe only in the power of crystals.  We have a spirit and just like our bodies and minds our spirit needs to be fed.  Not sure you believe that?  I have met people before who have plenty to eat and have people in their life.  There minds are active and engaged but they will tell you that they feel defeated and hopeless.  They feel that way because their spirit has been wounded by the trials of life. Their spirit has been injured by the behavior of another person or by mistakes and missteps they have made in life. Their body, mind, and social life may be well fed, but they are defeated in the spirit.

            And while we are made of body, mind, and spirit, it is our spirit and spiritual life that determines our destiny and overall pattern of our life.  If someone is defeated in spirit, it does not matter how physically strong their body and mind are, they are a defeated person.  Conversely, if someone is strong in their spirit, it does not matter how physically strong their body and mind is, they are a strong person.

            So when we turn to the Bible and we read about food, meals, feasts, and banquets, we discover that these things of the physical world are used by God to represent or symbolize larger spiritual truths.  Meals, feasts, and banquets in the Bible are intended to be a vehicle, a means, by which we are fed spiritually in our relationship with God.  Afterall, our relationship with God determines the destiny of our life now and forever.

            We had two stories today in our Scripture readings that involved meals.  One was from the Old Testament involving a man named Abraham.  The other story came from the New Testament involving a man named Paul and a group of his friends.  While both stories share a moment of physical eating, as we will see, the meals involved a significant spiritual purpose.  When we conclude our worship service today, we too will have the opportunity to share a meal together that feeds our spirit in an awesome way.

            Our first story began with these words, “The Lord appeared to Abraham.”  God, accompanied by two others, was on the move and enter the story at the heat of the day near the great trees of Mamre where Abraham was dwelling. Upon seeing these three visitors, Abraham responded to God’s presence by bowing down low, a sign of humility and said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed.”  Abraham more than anything else wanted to fellowship with God.  He had a deep-seated need to do so.  Abraham teaches us here that the closer our personal relationship with God, the more we want to be in His presence.  Think about it for a moment.  There are people we have met in our life that make us happy just seeing them.  Because they do so, we want to see them more often.  That is the type of relationship God desires with each of us.  When I was growing up, God was portrayed as a sort of super police officer keeping track of me for the sole purpose of finding things I did wrong so he could punish me.  Tell me the truth.  If you had someone like that in your life, would you really want to spend time with them? I did not.  This is one reason the Apostle Paul said in the Book of Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  We need to change our mindset about God so that we can understand what it means to worship him and know his will.  God wants fellowship with us because he loves us.

            In our Old Testament story, God came to Abraham for fellowship and Abraham’s mind was properly focused and desired to sit and eat with God.  Can you imagine eating with God?  Again, back to my childhood, I can remember we would say grace before a meal – three times a year.  We would say before dinner on Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. It was always the same, “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” As a kid, it made me think that God came down from heaven on those days and He was at the dinner table with us. Now I know, that is not true.  God is always at that dinner table.  So now, every time we eat, we have a prayer, a conversation, directed toward God who is seated with us, thanking him for being with us, for giving us the time and food to eat.  We raise up prayers for those we have talked with that day or who are experiencing a difficulty of life.  We do not say a repetitive rote prayer.  We have fellowship with God.  In that fellowship at the table, our bodies are fed, our minds are engaged, and our spirits are nourished.  That is what Abraham was teaching us in just a few verses here.

            Our second story from the Bible today, also deals with a meal.  The story comes from the Book of Acts, that is the Acts of the Apostles of Jesus, Chapter 20, beginning at verse 7.  The writer of the book, a man named Luke, wrote, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.”  There are a couple points we want to know about this simple verse.  When Luke wrote, “On the first day of the week,” he is referring to what we now call Sunday.  The first day of the week was considered the day of the week in which Jesus rose from the dead.  It was and remains the day that Christian celebrate God’s decision to initiate fellowship with all of humanity.  Jesus, God in a human body, came from heaven to earth to restore all forms of fellowship; between humanity and Himself and between humanity.  Jesus came to address sin, once and for all time and for all people. Jesus came to be seen, heard, and experienced as a means of leading all of us from sin and as a means of restoring fellowship.  God proved all that Jesus said and did by resurrecting him from the dead.  If the resurrection never happened, as Jesus said it would, then the restoration of fellowship with God never happened.  But the good news is Jesus did rise from the dead and, therefore, we can have fellowship with God through Him. Christians then chose that day, the first day of the week to gather and celebrate fellowship with God and one another.

            Second, Luke said “we came together.”  The “we” here is the early Christian believes.  Third, Luke said, “we came together to break bread.”  To break bread is to eat a meal together and feed their bodies.  But more than that this meal, the breaking of this bread, was a way to reenact the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples to feed their spirits.  You see just before Jesus was arrested and killed, Jesus shared a meal and used bread and wine as a symbol of what he had done for all of humanity. Jesus asked his disciples to repeat this meal as a way of engaging their minds to remember what Jesus taught them and did for them.  Jesus knew we needed ways of expressing and remembering the restoration accomplished by God.  Breaking bread was a means to remind Jesus’ followers that they have fellowship with the Almighty, and we can restore fellowship with one another.  Briefly, let’s see this gathering played out.

Verse 7 continues, “Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting.  [No doubt those lamps were generating some added heat.]   Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus [probably trying to get some air], who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. [You can almost see this young man, perhaps a teenager, tired from working that day, warm from the lamps, trying to listen to Paul, and all the while drifting off.]  When he [Eutychus] was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!’”

Let me make three quick points.  Through Paul, the young man experienced and the congregation witnessed the power of God like few others.  God, using Paul as an instrument, resuscitated, and brought Eutychus back to mortal life.  That is just an awesome moment from the history of the church.  Second, we need to be mindful of our youth that worship services keep them engaged and we keep them away from open windows.  Third, a warning from this account offered by the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon still applies, “Remember, if you go to sleep during the sermon and die, there are no apostles here to restore you!"

            Finally, Luke brought us to the conclusion of this account that after the miracle, “11 Then he [Paul] went upstairs again and broke bread and ate.”  Think about this scene.  Paul was giving his farewell sermon.  A young man fell out of a third-floor window to his death.  Paul interrupted the service rushed down to the street, threw himself on the young man and restored his life.   The group was exhilarated and overjoyed but never forgot the reason they came together. They came together to break bread. Neither death nor life would keep them from fellowship with God through the remembrance of Jesus. 

The proclamation of the good news of restored fellowship with God remembered through the breaking of bread, was more significant to Paul and the early church than the miracle of restoring a young man’s mortal life.  Take that in for a moment.  What we will do here in a few moments when we share what we now call the Lord’s Supper is spiritually more profound and more significant than anything else we could do or witness today.  It means Christ died for us and our separation from God is over.  It means the divisions between us need to melt away. It means Christ will come again. It means Christ came back to life and now sits with God speaking on our behalf.  If you have never publicly acknowledged Jesus who made this possible, listen to this invitation in Jesus’ own words, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”  Jesus is inviting you into fellowship with Him, with the person seated next to you, and with me.  That is the power of the Word of God and the spiritual significance of what we are about to do.  Come to the table, let us break bread, and be blessed.  Amen.

08-30 - Reality

        There is a story from the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato called the Allegory of the Cave.  Plato wrote the story about 400 BC.  In the story, Plato asked his readers’ to contemplate their understanding of reality.  He asked his readers to consider a cave that held several prisoners.  The prisoners had never been outside the cave and, in fact, had been chained such that they could only look straight ahead at a blank wall of the cave.  Behind the prisoners was a walkway for other people and animals to pass.  Behind the walkway was a fire.  The fire, of course, shed light on the people and animals on the walkway which cast shadows of this activity upon the wall that the prisoners could see.  The prisoners could only see the shadows moving across the wall of the cave. As those shadows passed, the prisoners would try to guess what the shadow represented and what shadow was going to next pass in front of them.  The shadows became the prisoners’ reality.  Then one day, a prisoner broke free of his chains and left the darkness of the cave and into the light.  He saw great and wonderful things in the brilliance of the light. He quickly came to learn how distorted his view, his reality in the cave, had been of the world only seeing it through the reflection of shadows.  This freed prison returned to his friends in the cave to share the joy of his discoveries.  The freed prisoner wanted to help his friends move from the darkness into the light and share in his joy.  The prisoners chained in the cave did not believe what their friend had to say.  Instead, they mocked him and desired to kill him.

        Plato’s story reveals the truth of human nature.  Humans are very capable of creating their own sense of reality and are even comfortable in a reality shaped by shadows and darkness. We have a sense of security living in the “reality” we created for ourselves.  Although Plato wrote his story nearly 400 years before the birth of Christ, the parallels between Plato’s story and Jesus’ public ministry are unmistakable.

            Listen to the story of Jesus first revealing who he was to others.  “16 He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He [Jesus] stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:  18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  20 Then he [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He [Jesus] began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:16-22).  Jesus came with good news, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to give sight, and set the oppressed free.  Jesus came with a new message of hope.  At first people were attentive but then Jesus challenged the people’s reality and the comfort of the people.  What was the result?  Luke wrote, “28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30).  The people of Jesus own hometown rejected the message of Jesus that challenged the reality of God they had created for themselves.

            Later, while in Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism, Jesus “spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’  13 The Pharisees challenged him, ‘Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid’” (John 8:12-13).  Jesus was bringing a message of light into the darkness. In the light, in him, others could see God clearly.  But the Pharisees, said Jesus testimony was not valid, it could not be believed.

            Jesus persisted to help those in the dark to know the joy of the light found with God. “Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’  33 They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ 34 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word’” (John 8:31-37).  Jesus could see that his message was hard for people to accept.  People were invested in their own sense of reality of the God they created for themselves.  They had seen God do great things and listened to God’s word but only as a prisoner looking upon the shadows on the wall of a cave.  The truth about God was distorted.  When Jesus came with the truth, they could not accept his word, and desired to kill him.

            The Apostle John put it this way, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21). Jesus came into the world as the light to dispel the darkness and removed the shadows but people preferred the darkness.  What was the result?  The people killed Jesus rather than step into the light.  Plato’s fantasy story of the Allegory of the Cave had come into reality.

            The task Jesus left for those who did come to believe in him as the light of the world was to walk in continuous fellowship with him.  The Apostle John speaking to the church expressed the individual response to Jesus this way, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7).  Our individual mission and purpose then is to walk with Jesus in the light of his word.  This means we must move from the shadows.  We must move from the shadows of our former lives.  We must move from the shadow of other religious and secular beliefs in which we want to take comfort.  We must be willing to accept that our lives in following Jesus, in moving into the light, will be changed.  Sadly, many people do not want to change and desire to see God as just a better version of who they believe they are.

            The Apostle Paul was one person who changed, not easily, but he changed.  After he changed and allowed Jesus who free him from his traditions and his former life, Paul wrote, “15 The Son [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  Paul no longer looked at the shadows to imagine what God might be like.  Instead, Paul looked upon Jesus, his life, his ministry, his word, his death, and his resurrection and saw God, clearly. Paul’s words reveal a reality.  To come to know God and do God’s will requires that we come to a crisis of belief.  When we reach a medical crisis or health crisis, it is that moment when the illness or insult to our body has reached such a point that we will either move toward certain death or toward restored life.  The same is true of a crisis of belief.  It is that moment when our spiritual life, beset by the illness and insult of sin and the trials of life reaches such a point that we either move toward Jesus or away from Jesus.  We either move toward the certainty of life or the certainty of death. Paul reached that crisis of belief and concluded, “15 The Son [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:15-18). Paul in accepting Jesus as the light of the world and the visible image of the invisible God entered reality. 

            Paul knew his life in reality must change, not a little tweak here or there, but it must change in substantial and enduring ways. Paul knew he would now see things in the light that he could not see in the darkness and the shadows.  In seeing in the light, Paul knew he must imitate Jesus who, as Paul said, had supremacy over all things.  The supremacy of Jesus must be lived out each day and the way we show the supremacy of Jesus is by imitating Jesus with compassion toward others, with gentleness, with kindness, and with love.  We demonstrate the supremacy of Jesus within us when we offer joy and peace that lives within us in abundance with others.  The reality is to accept Jesus as the light of the world, as the visible image of the invisible God, we too must accept the reality that our lives must be radical different from our past.

            Paul also knew that to pass through the crisis of faith and choose to walk in the light with Jesus meant accepting the reality that God had been, is, and always will be at work around us.  Paul may have sensed God at work when Paul lived in the shadows but now that Paul lived in the light of Jesus, Paul could see God at work. The reality is God invited Paul to join him in his work and to know God better, more deeply, and more personally. Paul discovered the more he engaged in God’s work, the more he experienced God.  This is our reality as well.  In coming through a crisis of belief and accepting Jesus we want to imitate Jesus.  In imitating Jesus, we see the work God is doing and we join him in doing it.  As we do so, we know God better, more personally, and then we understand just how much God loves us.

            It is in the reality of God’s love that we experience Jesus anew.  Paul wrote, “19 For God was pleased to have all his [God’s] fullness dwell in him [Jesus], 20 and through him [Jesus] to reconcile to himself [God] all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his [Jesus’] blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).  In Jesus, we are reconciled to God and to each other.  That is true of all things on earth and in heaven.  That is what Jesus did when he entered the cave of darkness and shadows and invited us to walk with him in the light.  The reality is we have been reconciled at have peace.  The reality is wherever chaos, strife, rioting, division, arguments, and harshness exist, it exists because we chose to climb back into the cave and the shadows.  The reality is anger is a choice we make to break the peace brought by Jesus.  The reality is anger reflects that Jesus we have rejected the supremacy of Jesus.  The reality is that anger reflects we have passed through the crisis of belief and chose death over life.

What are we then to do?  We have been offered freedom from the bounds of our past and we have been offered the hope of the future.  We must accept Jesus and reject the idea of keeping ourselves chained in the cave. We need to walk out into the light with Jesus and in listen to his teachings and do the things that he is doing. We must have love for one another and help others share in the joy of being free and reconciled to God.  This is the reality of life.  It is not easy because it requires that we be willing to examine our life and beliefs to see if we are walking with God in the light or at the world of make believe in shadows and darkness.  Paul said, ”16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  [Do not feel judged that you walked away from your past traditions, practices, and beliefs.] 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16, 17).  Christ is the reality.  Let’s join him there.  Amen and Amen.

08-23 - Ready for Something New?

        The more time I spend studying Scripture, the more dynamic, exciting, majestic, and breathtaking is my view of God and the more overwhelming is His love through Jesus Christ.  The more I spend time I spend serving others, the more delicate, exposed, and the more dignity deserving is my view of humanity.  The more time I spend hearing stories of evil perpetrated by words and deeds against people, the more acute, more horrid, and more malicious is my view of sin.  The more time I spend in ministry, the more momentous, more profound, and more innovative is my view of God’s creation of His church energized by the Holy Spirit to bring the good news of His hope to people otherwise surrounded by sin and the indifference of the world.  Think for a moment about the picture those views create.  God the Father, together with His Son, and the Holy Spirit are engaged in the radical transformation of one human life at a time moving them from death to life, from sin to holiness, and from despair to hope; and God chose that you and I would be the messengers of that hope to that one life.  Let that thought pour over you for a moment.  Both you and I are messengers of the greatest hope and joy another human being can experience, to know that no matter what, God loves them.  That, my friends, is how radical God intended church to be.  The message and the transformation of life is not one that contemplates wearing a cross and bringing our old life and old ways with us or putting a Band-Aid on the wounds of life and returning to the same old activities to be wounded again.  Following Christ is radical, it is exciting, and it is always relevant to those we meet because while Christ has conquered sin for those who believe in Him; evil, hurts, pains, and hopelessness still dominate the world’s stage.

        So are you ready to connect more with God and people?  I am. Are you ready to share God with someone who feels unloved?  I am. Are you ready to discover more about God and his plan for your life?  I am.  Are you ready to be part of a church that has a momentous, profound, and innovative role in God’s plan?  I am.  Are you ready for something new?  I am. If you are ready, let us turn to God’s Word and see where He is leading us today.

        We will begin this morning with a brief look in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 6.  This is the account of the life of Noah and his family.  Noah was a simple man, likely a farmer, who had found favor with God.  At verse 11, it says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark.”  How radical is this story?  God made the earth and all that is in it and said it was “good.”  He now surveys the earth and all that is in it and said, “It is filled with violence and is corrupt because of man.”  The world was violent, cruel, unjust, and wrong.  The world was corrupt, perverted, and full of ethical rot and decay.  It was no longer “good.”  Yet, there was a small remnant; Noah and his family who were acceptable to God. Because God loved Noah and his family, God was determined to save them.  How would God save them?  God essentially said to Noah, “Are you ready for something new?”  It was then that God transformed Noah, the farmer, into Noah, the shipbuilder; a task Noah was unqualified to perform except through grace and strength provided by God.  Noah would be the agent on earth to bring forward God’s message of hope and love for humanity and creation.  The flood was not about destruction; it was about saving life, which God said was “good.” God called Noah to do something new.

        About ten years ago, I served as Chairperson of the Board of Deacons of another Baptist church and I experienced on a small-scale God working through the question, “Are you ready for something new?”  One Saturday afternoon, I was making calls to set up visits for the next day to some of the shut-ins of the church.  I called Dr. Elizabeth Peck, who was around 95 at the time.  She answered the phone.  I introduced myself and asked her, “How are you Dr. Peck?”  She paused and then replied with her own question, “Why do you want to know?”  I quickly explained I was calling to set up a visit for Sunday and thought I would start by asking how she was.  Dr. Peck then replied, “Well, to tell you the truth, I need a man!”  This time, I paused.  Are you ready for something new?  Feeling certain, the Deacon’s Procedure Manual did not address this situation, I asked with some trepidation, why she needed a man.  She explained that she needed some minor repairs done at the house.  In the past, corrupt repair people had swindled her and she needed someone she could trust.  That short conversation led to the creation of a church ministry, called the Carpenter’s Apprentice, for the men to come together and address such needs within the church and the community.  It was something new; it was an innovation of the church to let the vulnerable and isolated know God love them.  God asked only once for the building an ark to show His love but He repeatedly calls on us to new ways to build relationships with others to show His love. It is always new and always exciting.

            If we move from Genesis to our New Testament reading in Mark, Chapter 2, we find today’s Scripture reading and instruction from Jesus.  This is a passage about something new.  We will start at verse 18.  “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s [John the Baptist’s] disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”  Mark sets the scene.  The Pharisees, in particular, engaged in fasting; on the second and fifth days of the week – Monday and Thursday.  Fasting was not a private matter.  Fasting occurred in a public manner and some believed fasting put pressure on God to acquiesce to some demand by the person fasting.  In many cases, those fasting missed the moral or spiritual development point of fasting and instead were merely doing justice to the letter of the law.  Here some people observed the disciples of John and the Pharisees engaged in fasting; however, Jesus’ disciples were not fasting.  They wanted to know why Jesus was not enforcing the expected model of righteous behavior on your disciples.

            In verse 19, “Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day, they will fast.’”  Jesus radically changed the point of view and the scene of fasting through self-denial of food to the complete opposite of feasting at a wedding banquet.  Almost in a humorous manner, Jesus asks, “Who fasts at a wedding banquet?” How many of us would go to a wedding and expect to fast?  We would not; doing so is ludicrous.  Jesus often compared the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet because there was so much joy and promise found in the weddings in the first century and that euphoric feeling extends into the present day weddings.  Jesus’ answer then in the form of a question is, “Why would His disciples fast to seek God’s favor when God incarnate was sitting next and fellowshipping with them?”  Mark does not record any response from those who asked the question.  I can imagine them looking at Jesus, perhaps a little confused, trying to understand how His point of view connects with their original question.  Jesus was hitting them with the question of today, “Are you ready for something new? The kingdom of heaven is at hand and it is exciting.”  Sometimes I wonder if we miss the point of how wonderful it is for us to be alive at this moment in history.  We are able to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus meaning all his words are true giving us the power to share his love with others and ask them, “Are you ready for something new?”  Too often Christians seem satisfied to sit motionless and emotionless as though they were at the wedding unaffected by the joy.

            After an appropriate pause, Jesus responded again to the original question about fasting in particular, or more generally, about ritual or traditional religious practices.  He did so with two parables.  In verse 21, Mark recorded Jesus’ words, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth [new cloth] on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.”  This is a plainly spoken parable in which the hearer would be in acknowledgement that putting a new piece of cloth over the tear of an old garment in the hopes of extending the life of the old garment would not work.  For a time the tear in the garment is covered, but once washed that new cloth would shrink tearing itself away from the garment causing even greater damage to the garment.  The message is, taking a small piece of what is new and stitching it to old ways is not why Jesus came; it does not reflect the radical nature of God’s love any more than a passing shower reflects the radical nature of God’s love through the flood.

On the street I grew up on was a family of unwed sisters, who when I was ten, were all in their fifties.  They devoutly practiced their Catholic faith by attended Mass together almost every day of the week; not just on Sunday mornings but every day.  However, the only time they were not bickering or badmouthing one another, or someone else on the street, was the one hour a day they were in church.  In some ways, church was the unshuken piece of cloth covering the tear in their garment; it did not change anything and the daily presence in the church only drew attention to how ugly the tear was in the fabric of their family life.  This is Band-Aid Christianity.  Jesus would later say to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” We have an immortal and imperishable soul that reflects who we really are.  We cannot repair the fabric of our soul with a patch on the outside or by simply washing the dirt of our lives off.  It requires something completely new. 

            Jesus moved his audience to the “something completely new idea” with his next parable in verse 22.  He said, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”  Jesus begins with a point of common knowledge to his listeners; “no one pours new wine into old wineskins.”  New wine is wine that has not fully fermented.  A byproduct of fermentation is the release of gas, which requires the wineskin to expand.  Old wineskins are wineskins that are hard, rigid, and unyielding.  Jesus said, if you do put new wine in old wineskins, the wineskin will burst and the wine lost.  The vessel for new wine must be proper.  Many people do not understand this simple principle.  They do not recognize following Jesus requires us to be new and accept new ways of thinking, behaving, and speaking.  Too many just want to hold onto to their old ways. The result is sad.  Consider our Old Testament reading today, the Gibeonites gathered all of their old possessions, shoes, clothing, and wineskins to suggest they had come a long way to give honor to Joshua and Israel because of the power of God.  However, they were deceptive.  They did not travel a long distance, they were neighbors of the Israelites seeking to avoid Israel’s wrath.  Later, Joshua uncovered their deception and the Gibeonites a price paid.  They did not come to honor God.  Deceptiveness is all throughout the society in which we live and in some churches.  We know that what comes out of the mouth is not necessarily what’s in the heart.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Some claim Christ, but they live their old lifestyle believing an old wineskin can hold the new wine of the Gospel.  Jesus said, you must put new wine in a new wineskin.  The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  If you are in Christ, you are in essence a new wineskin, with the Holy Spirit filling your life.

            Are you, personally, ready for something new? Then connect with God through Christ. Discover what it means to be a new creation; no longer bound by your own traditions.  It is an exciting and rich life today and a blessed life for all time. Jesus is waiting for you at the wedding feast.  If you accept his invitation to join him, it is the beginning of greatest joy for you than you can now realize.  Are we, this church, ready for something new?  If we are people new in Christ gather, then we have a constantly refreshing, renewing, and innovating church congregation looking at the dynamic, exciting, majestic, and breathtaking view of God and overwhelming love found in Jesus Christ and sharing it with people that He loves who are delicate, exposed, and deserving dignity.  We cannot do what God wants in our personal life or as a church with a patch of cloth or by following the ways of our old lives.  We must be ready for something new.  If we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and with authenticity and love reach out to those around us, we can become the powerful messengers of hope God intended.  Are you ready for something new? I am.  Amen.

08-16 - Christian Character

            There is a quotation often cited in the business world that shares some meaningful truth for Christians.  It goes like this.  “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”  Our character, the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual, matters greatly.  As Christians, we must exhibit the character of the one we claim to follow, Jesus Christ.  It begins with our thoughts, then our words, followed by our actions, which become our habits, which then define our character.  Today, I want us to see Christian character through the life of a blind man named in Scripture as Bartimaeus.

            Let’s begin by looking at our New Testament reading in the Gospel of Mark; Chapter 10, beginning at verse 46.  Please open your Bibles to that passage.  If you are using a pew Bibles that passage starts on page 47 of the New Testament section. We are reading from Gospel according to Mark, which scholars’ credit to a young man named John Mark, a protégé of the Apostle Peter.  Mark’s approach was to move his readers quickly through the story of Jesus’ life and ministry.  The first half of the Gospel, chapters 1 through 8, answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”  The answer is brief.   He is the Son of God; the one the prophets foretold would come to heal and make right humanity’s relationship with God.  The second half of the Gospel, chapter 9 through 16, answer the question, “How will Jesus, Son of God, accomplish God’s mission?”  The answer is disturbing; 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (8:31).”

            Our text today comes from the second half of the Gospel and occurs as Jesus briefly passes through the city of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. To fully appreciate the character lesson of Bartimaeus, we need to briefly look at the scenes before the text and then after the text. 

Immediately prior to this scene, Jesus and his disciples came through some difficult and tense moments.  The apostles James and John, giants in our understanding of the Christian character, had approach Jesus in secret. They had been thinking about something, undoubtedly talked to each other about it, and now it was time to take action. James and John asked Jesus, ““Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  James and John believed that Jesus would soon assume a position of great power in the land and they wanted to be Jesus’ principal deputies.  If Jesus was to be number 1 in the land, then James and John wanted to be number 2 and number 3.  They wanted power to decide who would (or would not) do what, when, where, and how. Thoughts led to words and words led to actions.  James and John displayed a character that sought power and dominion over others. They did not seek authority from Jesus for the ministry in his name; they sought authority for personal standing and control of others. 

John Mark, our gospel writer, recorded these words and reaction by the other apostles when James’ and John’s secret plan became known, “41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”  The ten were angry because someone else was trying to get one over on them and prevent them from becoming number 2 or number 3 in Jesus’ power structure.  “42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” 

Christian character is not about power for oneself, it is about empowering others. It is about following the example of giving others hope by serving them.  Jesus said, “45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Jesus was correcting the thinking of the disciples, so that they words would not be self-centered but gracious.  With gracious words comes a servant’s heart with deeds of care for others.  Done often enough those acts become habitual; meaning it is done almost without conscious decision, or even compulsory.  When our behavior is such, then it defines our character as that of Christ for we came to serve not be served.  That is the character model Christ wants but is not exhibited by James and John through their secret quest for power.

With the stage set, we turn to verse 46.  “46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.”  In the ancient language, the prefix, “bar,” means “son of.”  This man, Bartimaeus, sat, blind, an outcast from society.  His life was reduced to begging for money or food; making him dependent upon others for his very survival.  This was how people saw Bartimaeus; the character of Bartimaeus was thought to be that of a blind beggar, a drain on society and unable to contribute.  How often are our thoughts about the character traits of a person formed by their external appearance or circumstances?  If we think that way, our words, deeds, habits will inform our character will act accordingly.  Christ wants us to look at the heart of the person and serve the external needs of others.

  In verse 47, as the crowd moved passed Bartimaeus, ”He [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he [Bartimaeus] began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”  Think about the scene for a moment.  Jesus, Son of God to some, to many just a miracle worker, was passing by the very road in which Bartimaeus sat as an outcast.  He realized Jesus caused the commotion but he could not see in front of him.  Two things happened.  First, everyone who knew the power of Christ and knew Bartimaeus or could observe his condition chose not to ask Jesus to serve Bartimaeus.  No one seemed to think Bartimaeus worth to be introduced to Jesus. Apparently, Jesus’ lessons on being a servant to others sink in slowly or not at all.  Are we like those of that crowd?  We know Jesus, we follow him, we study the Bible, we do acts of charity but we are unwilling to set any of those things aside to spend the time to introduce the outcast to Christ?  Ponder that question this week. 

The second thing that happened was Bartimaeus spoke loudly calling to Jesus as his sole source of grace.   “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, the outcast, the blind beggar saw something almost no one else saw; the promise of God’s love right before him.  He praised Jesus as the rightful heir of King David’s throne and the giver of grace through healing.  These were Bartimaeus’ thoughts.  His thoughts led to him speaking.

Verse 48 provides the reaction, “48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” “Stop being such a bother and be quiet. No one wants to hear from you and certainly do not be speaking about Jesus as some Messiah!”  However, “Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Bartimaeus’ thoughts could not be silenced so he acted again repeating his call to Jesus as the savior from God and the only source of grace.  If you speak out as a believer in Jesus as the Christ, many will sternly tell you to be quiet.  If we have a genuine Christian character, then it will be impossible to silence us. Do not be silenced in your love for Christ.

There once was a man named Polycarp who became a disciple of the Apostle John.  Polycarp served in the Christian Church and rose to some prominence.  In 155 A.D., Roman soldiers arrived at Polycarp’s home to arrest him because he refused to burn incense in honor of the emperor.  Polycarp provided the soldiers supper then he prayed with such devotion that several of them were converted.  Despite his hospitality, the soldiers brought Polycarp to an arena filled with local people looking for a good show.  The Roman authority said he would set Polycarp free if and only if Polycarp would denounce Jesus.  Polycarp responded this way, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” Polycarp could only show hospitality toward those sent to arrest him and could only speak about Christ and his message.  This was his character.  In that arena, he met the character of the crowd.  They bound Polycarp and burned at the stake because he would not remain silent.

 Bartimaeus understood that remaining silent with Jesus present in your life was impossible. Bartimaeus called out, ““Son of David, have mercy on me!” “49 Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.”

James and John had approached Jesus in secret and Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  They asked for power over others.   They left unfulfilled.  Bartimaeus approached Jesus in public and Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus said, “Heal me.”  Bartimaeus received sight and was satisfied.  Mark presented such a contrast in the stories between those seeking Christ.  Jesus healed Bartimaeus in response to Bartimaeus’ faith and as a means of showing others, including us, the power of God. Have you thought about the question, “What do you want from Jesus?”  Have you thought about as though you were James and John or as one like Bartimaeus?

Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaeus did not go.  He left behind is beggar’s cloak and followed Jesus on the way.  Bartimaeus was not interested in returning to his old life or even his old garment.  He was interested in only one thing; following Jesus on the way.  Is that how we think, speak, and act?  Do we genuinely move from our old life and old ways and follow a new way with Christ?

We might ask, Bartimaeus was on the way but where was Jesus going?  Mark said Jesus next stop was Jerusalem for a triumphal entry. As far as we know, Bartimaeus was there no singing and crying out, ““Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Jesus was going to the cross and Bartimaeus was following him.  That was Bartimaeus’ new character.

            What is your character? What is the inner nature of your thinking and how does it surface to others?  Do you act as James and John working in secret, seeking advantages in life and ignoring the outcasts that surround you as you profess your devotion to Christ?  Think about what you do or do not do on a daily basis.  Those things are your habits which define your character. Alternatively, are you like Bartimaeus who understood that your life could not reach its potential without a healing by Jesus and by following him?  What occupies your thoughts?  God knows because He hears what you say.  Others know because they receive your words and see your actions.  We might like to think others are blind but they are not.  What are you doing habitually and does it represent Christ in you? The character of Bartimaeus was a simple one.  He looked for grace in Jesus and would not be silenced once he found it.  What is your character? 

08-09 - James - Prayer and Praise

James 5:13-20

We have come to the end of ten weeks of exploration of a letter from the brother of Jesus, a man named James.  The teachings of James at times contained harsh, rigid, and blunt warnings to the first followers of Jesus.  At other times, James’ teaching offered encouragement to those who were trying to live faithfully.  Overall, James was addressing real problems being experienced by real people as they came together in the collective of the institution, we call church.  We need James’ teachings today because James was calling on the Christians to recognize that a key element of life was to live with a new sense of community founded in God’s victory over sin and death evidenced by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.  In living out that life, James made clear Christianity is not a “go it alone” life.  Christianity is a community lifestyle.  Honoring God is not done in secret.  Honoring God occurs in living our lives in a new family setting of brothers and sisters in Christ.  And one of things we come to realize, and James focused very much on this point, is that siblings, brothers and sisters, do not always naturally get along. Afterall, we see that the very first sibling relationship of Cain and Abel ended in Abel’s murder.  The idea of a Christian community does not come naturally to us.  It comes to us supernaturally through Jesus.

So as James concluded his letter, it appears James wanted his readers to take on the best sense of community as possible, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that Jesus came to establish, gave his life for, and arose from the dead to give hope to.  Now, James was not trying to paint a picture that following Jesus meant everything would be easy and joyful all the time.  That is not real.  James was saying that life even for the follower of Jesus will have its difficulties. There will be times of suffering and times of joy.  And the boundary that separates joy and suffering can be terrifyingly thin.  Last week, Becky and I sat with some parents who have lost children to death.  One mother shared that she had been with her adult son on a Thursday.   It was a good day.  At the end of the day, she and her son went to their respective homes.  They had made plans for Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday did not come for her son. He died peacefully seated on the couch watching television.  This is reality of life.  It is a mixture of suffering and joy often with a very thin boundary between them.

James began to confront the reality of life in the Christian community and the thin boundaries we face.  James wrote, “13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”  James’ understanding of following Jesus in this life was simple. His formula was: in trouble, pray; in joy, praise.  Prayer and praise were and are the appropriate response to trouble and joy.  Prayer and praise are two forms of communication with God. Prayer is our way of setting out our dependence upon God for compassion and mercy to be extended in our times of trouble.  Praise is our expression of joy in knowing our God will listen and has been and will be present in our life. 

Prayer and praise say a lot about our relationship with God.  If either prayer or praise or both are missing in our life, it would suggest our relationship with God needs repair. James said earlier in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:2b-3a).  James was expressing that his readers’ relationship with God was in need of repair because genuine prayer and praise were absent.

Now there can be a temptation by some to make prayer too complicated or too formal and mechanical.  I read an article the other day stating that there are nine different types of prayer. There is prayer of intercession, supplication, faith, corporate, in the spirit, thanksgiving, confession, dedication, and imprecation or curing someone.  The article said each prayer had its own format.  I would find it exhausting to remember the details of each form of prayer and a source of concern as to whether I had used the “proper” format for the purpose.  Jesus said pray.  James said pray.  The Gospel message is simple; just talk to God and if you ask for anything, do so with right motives regardless of the specific reason you are praying.  Do not make it complicated.  Just pray.  In case you were wondering, I read another article on the seven forms of praise.  Each again reason for praise carried with it a specific purpose and format.  Jesus said praise.  James said praise.  The Gospel message again is simple; just praise God for his compassion, mercy, and provision.  Do not make it complicated.  Just offer praise.

Now James suggested that when we pray to God, we need not go it alone. Prayer can and should be a corporate exercise as well.  James wrote, “14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”  James encouraged his readers, now you and me, to make use of the community of brothers and sisters and invite them into our prayers for our troubles.  James said we should bring the elders in when someone is not well.  The term “elders” here means the leaders of the church. Inviting the leadership of the church is intended to bring the full weight of the church to support those who are sick.  Involving the elders means people who have the strength to pray can do so.  Involving the elders also means the answer to the prayer may have already been provided through the community of brothers and sisters called church.

Allow me to offer an illustration.  Tony Campolo is a well-known American preacher. Some years ago, Tony was invited by a Christian group to speak at their annual conference.  On the day of the conference, the master of ceremony gave Tony a glowing introduction and then asked Tony to lead the group in a prayer that God would provide the funds for the orphanage this group financially supported. Tony made his way to the pulpit and considered how best to pray.  Tony looked around and realized the people in this group were financially stable, with a few appearing to be wealthy.  When Tony arrived at the microphone, he paused for a moment, and then said, “I will not lead this group in prayer.”  Tony continued, “I will not pray that God would make the funds available for this orphanage because God has already answered that prayer.  In this very room is enough money for the orphanage and before I begin speaking we are going to take a collection.”  A few people chuckled at this amusing thought.  Tony said, “I am not kidding.”  Taking a breadbasket from the table, Tony said, “I am taking all the money out of my wallet and donating it to the orphanage. I am now going table by table and asking each of you to do the same; empty your wallets of all cash into the basket.”  Tony went table to table and took up an offering.  When it was counted, there was more money than the orphanage needed for the year.  Tony then gave his prepared remarks to the group.  That group never invited Tony to return.

Bringing the elders into our prayers brings the weight and power of the living body of Christ to bear down upon our sickness, whatever form that may be expressed.  God can use the living body of Christ to lift the sick but only if the body is willing and engaged in moving.

James then went on to say that in community, we need to be honest with one another and seek accountability from one another. James said, “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:15b-16).  Sin causes wounds within families, churches, and nations.  Sin is a wound that at best will leave scar tissue and at the worst will allow infection into the spiritual body.  Confession, disclosure of sin, frees us, cleans out the wound, and opens the possibility of reconciliation with others.  When we confess our sins, we open ourselves up to God and to restoration with others so that we can have a new future. Confession is to be about building the future.

Confession is hard because we must trust in the person to whom we are confessing, and we must confess with proper motives.  Often our motives for sinning get in the way of our confessing.  A learned pastor wrote, “We sinners are so backwards that we try to justify ourselves by some condition which preceded the sin. Motives console us.”[1]  What does this pastor mean by that?  Ever hear the words come out of your mouth or have someone say to you, “I am sorry that I yelled at you, but you made me angry when you said…”  We have confessed with improper motives by justifying our actions as a natural response to the actions of the person to whom we are confessing.  The confession then becomes an instrument to accuse.  That learned pastor completed his though this way, “It isn’t some preliminary cause, some motive before sin that justifies me, but rather the forgiveness of Christ which meets my repentance after the sin.”[2]  Forgiveness comes, reconciliation comes, healing comes after we repent.

 

James then concluded with this touching thought, “19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  If we wander from the truth we are at risk.  The term wander means to aimlessly move from place to place or in this case, from one belief to another.  James knew something about being aimless.  James lived many years with Jesus and did not see who Jesus was. James listened to Jesus and thought he was insane.  James tried to get Jesus to do things that we either not proper in time or place. James was aimless in his pursuit of God. Then something remarkable happened. Jesus was killed on the cross and buried.  I do not doubt that James grieved his brother’s death.  Sorrow had entered James’ life.  Then just days later came the word, “Jesus had risen from the grave. Jesus was alive.”  Sorrow gave way to joy.  While the boundary between joy and sorrow is thin so too is the boundary between sorrow and joy.  The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of joy for all humanity and reshapes our understanding of sorrow and joy.  The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of creating new individuals for a new community.

You and I are part of that new community.  We need to pray for one another.  We need to bring the full weight of the church community down upon the problems we face and to be used by God to lift one another up.  This is the will of God.  Jesus said, ““Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Let us live in a community peace as brothers and sister.  Amen and Amen


[1] Wagerin, Walter, Reliving the Passion, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1992), 46.

[2] Ibid.

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