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Sep 22 - Thy Will or My Will

Matthew 6:5-14

Luke 11:1-4  

Have you ever asked yourself this question, “Why am I here?”  The words, “Why am I here?” are simple and yet those words can result in a very complex set of answers.  At the highest level, the question, “Why am I here?” can cause us to contemplate the purpose of our life.  At the lowest level, the question can cause us to wonder why we are here in the sanctuary at this moment in time.  Whether we choose to think of the question, “Why am I here?” at the highest level, the lowest level, or somewhere in between, the answer ultimately involves an expression of someone’s will or choice.  Am I here because of my will or someone else’s will?  In this regard, our entire life is a matter of choices or expressions of someone’s will.

            There are some Christians who believe that everything in life, every action, every reaction, has been ordained and determined ahead of time by God’s will.  By this they believe that all choices of life are God’s choice from the simplest decision as to the next words out of our mouth to the manner and moment of our death.  All will is God’s and we have no will of our own. 

Other Christians believe that God set everything in motion and gave humanity the power to make choices and then, God walked away.  By this those Christians believe that all choices in life belong to us.  That all choices are our will and God’s will is not involved in the affairs of our life or the world. 

These two groups of Christians then would have us believe that we are here because we chose to be here or because God chose to exercise his will over us and place us where we are.  Those views are at very different ends of the spectrum of Christian thought.

“What then is truth and why does it matter?”  By whose will are you here; God’s will or human will?  I believe the answer to that question is found in the words and in the prayers of just one person named Jesus.  I want to begin with a few words from Jesus.

One day Jesus was speaking to a group of people.  Some of the people were his apostles, some were followers, and still others were antagonists of Jesus.  On this occasion, Jesus took the opportunity to explain who he was and why he was here.  Jesus said, “38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:38-40).  Jesus words tell us two very important things.  First, God sent Jesus from heaven to earth.  This tells us that God did not simply set the wheels of the world in motion and walk away.  God is involved in the world and sent Jesus for a purpose.  Second, Jesus answered the question, “Why am I here?”  Jesus said that he was God’s son sent by God to bring a message of hope which is God’s will.  Jesus came to do only what God willed even though Jesus possessed a separate will of his own.  Jesus exercised his will and chose to make his will the same as that of God’s.  Jesus’ words then tells us God is involved in the world and that God has a will of his own and we have a will of our own.  Now, you might be thinking, I know I have a will of my own, this is not a revelation.  This may be true enough, but do we understand how to exercise our will in the right ways?

The great figures of the New Testament struggled with exercising their wills in the right ways.  The apostle Paul wrote, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 8:15, 18b-20).  Paul understood he had a will independent of God’s will.  Paul knew that God’s will for his life was good, but Paul struggled to do what God wanted.  But Paul had little trouble doing what Paul wanted.  So knowing we have a will separate from God’s is not the same as exercising God’s will as our own.  It is a struggle.

To help us a bit on this matter of exercising our will either along with God or independent of God’s will we go back to some additional words of Jesus.  On another day, Jesus sent his disciples gather up some food.  When Jesus’ disciples returned to him they said, “‘Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples], ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’

33 Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’  34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’” (John 6:31b-34).  Jesus, it seems, was nourished and sustained by doing God’s will.  Jesus valued doing God’s will as much as anyone of us values eating; it was life sustaining and enjoyable.  I am sure many of you have had the experience of doing what you are sure God wanted you to do.  In those moments when I have done so, I feel such a joy and lightness and freedom that I do not feel I need sleep or food.  I believe this is the experience Jesus was sharing with his disciples.

            Sadly, though we mere mortals are slow learners about exercising our will, about choosing to do God’s will.  Jesus tried another way to explain the experience of following God’s will.  One evening, Jesus was teaching in a house filled and overflowing with people.  “31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.  Standing outside [the house], they sent someone in to call him [Jesus].  32 A crowd was sitting around him [Jesus], and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’  33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.  34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:31-34).  Jesus was redefining family relationships.  God sent Jesus to do God’s will.  Anyone else, anyone of us, who would do God’s will was therefore an intimate family member of Jesus; a mother, brother, or sister.  Biological family no longer determined someone’s ancestry or inheritance.  Instead, choosing to exercise your will consisting with God’s will makes a child of God with all the rights and privileges that brings.  Think about that for a moment.  You are as close to God as Jesus when you act as God would act.

            From this we learn that we have a will and God has a will.  We can choose to exercise our will or God’s will.  When we exercise God’s will, then our being is sustained and satisfied.  When we exercise God’s will we are as close to God on earth as we can get.  How then do we learn to experience the joy, satisfaction, and closeness to God as we exercise our own will?  The answer is simple in method but often it is difficult for us to put into practice.  The answer to knowing how to exercise your will consistent with God’s is done prayer.  When we pray, we are seeking a most intimate relationship between God and ourselves.  Jesus prayed.  He even prayed for the strength to conform his will to God’s.

One evening, Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane.  There among the olive trees, Jesus prayed to God.  It was a difficult moment for Jesus for he knew people were coming to arrest him and that once arrested they would crucify him.  Jesus was deeply disturbed and sad as we might feel the moment we learn that someone very close to us had died.  Jesus entered the garden, and he “fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’  [The cup was the entire experience upon the cross.]  40 Then he [Jesus] returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. 41 ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  42 He [Jesus] went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.’  43 When he [Jesus] came back, he again found them [his disciples] sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing [‘Not my will but Thy will be done].” 

To know God’s will is to pray for the courage to receive God’s will and then do it.  We might not have recognized this truth but this is what we did earlier in our worship service when we prayed together the Lord’s Prayer.  This is what we heard in the scripture readings today from the Gospel of Matthew and of Luke.  Taking the two accounts together, we read, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John [John the Baptist] taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1)  “‘This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 6:9-13). 

This the most common form of the Lord’s Prayer.  In this church, we say these words together each time we gather for worship.  We could have a whole series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer but for today I want to note just three things.  First, common prayers and ancient prayers like the Lord’s Prayer are helpful because those prayers remind us important Christian beliefs.  Second, however, common prayers repeated over the centuries create a risk that we will hear what we are saying as just words to be repeated and not a prayer intended to bring us closer to God.  If we listen carefully, all churches have developed a rhythm to the way we say the Lord’s Prayer.  We all pause and use similar inflections on the words, almost regardless of the church we might attend.  This leads us to the final point, are we really listening to what we are saying and asking God to grant in response to such prayers.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth.”

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth” is a prayer that God would change us to be like Jesus and that we would only ever do God’s will.  “Not my will, but your will [God] be done.”  What are we saying?  Many people limit their understanding of this part of the prayer as only asking God that we could come to accept the difficulties of life as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane.  “Lord, give me strength to accept the cross that is before me.  Thy will be done.”  That cross that we equate as God’s will could be an illness, a divorce, an imprisonment, or any other disagreeable thing in life.  Lord, let me bear up under what has happened to me.  If that is true, then should we also look at the blessings in life as an act of God’s will being fulfilled.  “Lord, give me the humility to accept the beauty that you have placed before me this must also be an act of your will.”  Is not the beauty in our life also God’s will?  That beauty could be food to eat, a friend who shows us love, a breathtaking sunset, wisdom from a wise counselor, a smile we may coax from a grumpy person, etc.  The list of blessings that pour over our lives that can be seen as God’s will are endless.  Becky and I experienced God’s will in this sense when on a couple of occasions we sat on the beach in Maine looking at the ocean with its endless waves gently braking on the shore and the brilliant sunlight sparkling on the ocean surface.  It was magnificent and that moment of nature reflected God’s will on earth.  Praying for more of those blessings makes us more aware when they are presented to us.

This leads us to our final point.  God is able to do anything, but God chooses to work through people to accomplish much of his will.  So, when we pray, “your will be done on earth,” we are asking God to move within us to do His will here on earth.  We are asking God to change our minds and hearts to be aligned with his desires and, here is the hard part, then do the work of His kingdom.  We are asking God to give me Jesus fully that I could go and offer hope, healing, and comfort not just to those I like but to those who do not like me.  We are asking God take the words out of my mouth when I say, “I am going to make it my business to make sure that what I think is right happens.” and soften them to say, “My food is to do the will of God; My desire to join my brother Jesus and do what he is doing.”  What we are saying in our prayer is, “Your will be done – by me – now!”

Have you ever asked yourself this question, “Why am I here?”  You are here, in this sanctuary, because you aligned your will for this moment to be the same as God’s will.  The choice we have to make from this moment forward is who’s will shall I follow.  Shall it be my own, the will of someone else, or shall we say together in prayer to God, “I am here that ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ – by me – now.

Sep 1 - Judas - More than a Betrayer

John 13:1-30

This summer we have been exploring characters of the New Testament.  We looked for a few weeks at Jesus’ apostle Peter, then a woman named Lydia, and last week we looked briefly at man named Apollos.  This week, I would like us to explore a mysterious figure of the New Testament, Jesus’ apostle named Judas Iscariot.  Judas is mysterious because he was an intimate personal witness of the life of Jesus and yet betrayed Jesus.  As Christianity grew, the use of the name Judas fell out of use because his name connotates darkness and wickedness.  In fact, the name Judas became a noun used to describe peepholes or other devices used to spy on someone.  This is because observing someone without their consent is considered an act of betrayal.

I admit it is a little odd to speak of Judas in a sermon because Judas is always described in the New Testament as the betrayer of Jesus.  And that fact can make us ask, “What can I learn from the life of a betrayer that will help me in my faith journey?”  Let’s see what we might learn from Judas’ life.

We first hear about Judas in a list of men Jesus called to be his disciples, his apostles.  The Gospel of Luke says, “One [of those] day[s] Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, [who became a traitor] (Luke 6:12-16).  The first thing we learn is that after prayer, Jesus chose Judas to be an apostle, Jesus’ personal representative.  We learn further from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that Jesus then gave each apostle the authority to preach, drive out demons, and heal every sickness and disease (Mt. 10:1; Mk. 3:14, 15).  Judas was only one of 12 individuals in the world chosen and empowered by Jesus to exercise the power of God.  Once invested with this power and authority, Jesus sent Judas and the eleven other apostles out into the world and said, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Mt. 10:7, 8).  The apostles, including Judas, went out into the world, two-by-two, doing as Jesus instructed.  “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done” (Luke 9:10).  Judas was a preacher and healer in the name of Jesus.  What an amazing experience that must have been for Judas.  Here Judas was called by Jesus into ministry.  He was a witness to miracles and transforming teachings of Jesus.  Judas was commissioned by Jesus to preach and to heal, and Judas did just that.  Excitedly Judas returned to Jesus and shared everything he had done.  Have you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to have the power to heal another person’s body?  I have.  I have thought about how marvelous it would be to be able to touch another person and remove cancer, end Parkinson’s disease, heal someone’s spirit, and on and on goes the list.  I have dreamed about that life.  Judas lived that life.

After Judas and the other apostles returned from healing, Jesus continued to teach them in private and to share his ministry with them in public.  One time, Jesus said to them, “Things will surely happen that will make people sin. But it will be very bad for anyone who makes this happen.  So be careful!  If your brother or sister in God’s family does something wrong, warn them. If they are sorry for what they did, forgive them. Even if they do something wrong to you seven times in one day, but they say they are sorry each time, you should forgive them.”  The apostles said to the Lord, “Give us more faith!” (Luke 17:1, 3-5, ERV).  Judas listed to Jesus and heard the warning that things happen in life that cause even the best of people to sin.  But Jesus said something so reassuring. “All is not lost when you sin.  You can repent and receive forgiveness.”  Judas heard the warning that things cause us to sin, but you can repent and receive forgiveness.  We need to hear those words for ourselves and we need to apply them to one another.  We do not have to daydream about having the power to forgive another person.  We have that power to heal broken and damaged relationships.  To use that power, we must be able to say, “I am sorry,” and we must be able to say, “I forgive you.”

            The response by Judas and the other apostles to this good news was to ask Jesus to, “Give us more faith!”  Give us the faith to do what you ask of us.  Give us the faith to believe that we do not need to keep secret sin but that we can bring in forth into the light and be forgiven.  Give us faith to truly forgive others.  Judas and the other apostles were on a faith journey in which their lives were being transformed into the very likeness of Jesus and they shouted for even more.  Judas was having a spirit filled experience with the Lord developing in wisdom and faith.

            We learned from our reading today from the Gospel of John that Judas had a position of trust.  He oversaw the money purse for the group.  Judas kept account for the money received, the money spent, and for holding onto to the money as the group traveled.  Judas was trusted by the other apostles. 

But something happened to Judas and his authority over the money purse.  One day, a woman poured an expensive perfume over Jesus.  The perfume was worth a year’s wages.  “[But one of his disciples], Judas Iscariot, [who was later to betray him,] objected [to this woman pouring out this expensive perfume], ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:4-6).  It seems that at some point, probably after Judas’ death, the apostles came to learn that Judas had his hand in the money purse to use for himself. 

This is the first point of departure from faith that we see in Judas’ story.  It probably started as a little thing.  Sin always starts small.  Judas wanted something for himself and used a small amount of money from the group’s money purse for himself.  It probably was not a lot of money the first time.  After taking the money, Judas waited a bit and then realized that no one knew he had used the group’s money for himself.  Sin had entered Judas’ life and he felt like he was getting away with it.  He did not do as Jesus called for by confessing his sins and receiving forgiveness.  Instead, Judas wanted more money in the purse so that more could be taken.  Sin is like a strong acid.  Acid eats through whatever it touches making things weaker in the process.  Sin eats through beliefs and faith as well as the image of God that resides within us.  We become weaker.  The only way to become strong again is to confess our sin and allow God’s forgiveness to heal the damage done by sin.  The Bible tells us, “If we confess our sins, he [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  In some Christian traditions, such confessions are made to a priest as God’s representative who will grant (or not grant) forgiveness.  We Baptist are different.  We believe we have access to God the Father though Jesus the Son.  We are free to go to Jesus and confess our sins to him and ask for forgiveness.  It is not the role of the pastor to grant (or not grant) God’s forgiveness.  Judas had the perfect opportunity to express his sin to Jesus, to repent of his actions, and receive Jesus’ forgiveness and healing.  Instead, of seeking forgiveness, Judas went further into sin.  That is the funny thing about being tempted to sin.  There is nothing wrong with being tempted to sin.  Everyone has been and will continue to be exposed to sin.  But each temptation to sin always comes to an end.  Either the temptation to sin ends with us moving closer to God and denying ourselves the temptation or we follow the temptation and commit sin. 

After losing out on being able to sell the perfume poured onto Jesus’, Judas [14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot]—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him [Jesus] over” (Matthew 26:14-16).  Thirty pieces of silver was about one month’s wages.  Judas had moved down a dangerous track in sin from healer, to thief, to conspirator.  Judas had not just stopped growing with Jesus, Judas was now walking away from Jesus. 

What we see unfolding before us is Jesus’ warning being lived out.  “Things will surely happen that will make people sin.”  Something happened to Judas and sin began to corrode his faith.  The sin was not noticeable to other apostles.  This is the normal progression of sinful living upon the faithful.  Sin, at first, is like an adulterous affair.  The sin, the affair, is done in secret while maintaining appearances to others that things are as they should be.  Judas was having an affair of sorts with sin.  Jesus was no longer his exclusive love.  Judas had developed another love on the side that was growing larger by the moment.  Was it the love of money, or love for power, or love for rebellion, or love for Satan himself that attracted Judas?  We do not fully know because it is not important to know Judas’ motivations or whatever he perceived as his justification for walking away from Jesus.  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]

There is not one of us here today that is immune to the seduction of temptation and the corrosive nature of sin.  As Jesus said, we must be on guard for if our faith in the Lord is not growing, then our faith is getting weaker making us vulnerable to walking away from God.  There are many who are not here today who have done just that.  They were once strong in their faith but have little by little absorbed more and more of the toxic nature of worldliness that eats away at their faith.  Our learned pastor wrote again, “We sinners are so backwards!  We invert the true source of our justification.  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]  We all must own our sin, however we decided to bring it into our lives.  And we must repent of it directly to Christ and receive his forgiveness.  Jesus offers that forgiveness to you, to me, and he offered that to Judas.

This brings us to the climax to Judas’ sin as it unfolded in our reading today.  Jesus, Judas, and the eleven other apostles were gathered for the Passover meal.  In the middle of the meal, Jesus gently washed the feet of Judas and the others.  It was an act of kindness, love, and humility.  While Judas’ feet may have become clean, there was no change or cleaning of his heart.  There was no confession of his secret sin.  Our reading said that after washing the apostles’ feet, “Jesus became visibly upset, and then he told them why.  ‘One of you is going to betray me.’  22-25 The disciples looked around at one another, wondering who on earth he was talking about. One of the disciples, the one Jesus loved dearly, was reclining against him, his head on his shoulder. Peter motioned to him to ask who Jesus might be talking about. So, being the closest, he said, ‘Master, who?’  26-27 Jesus said, ‘The one to whom I give this crust of bread after I’ve dipped it.’ Then he [Jesus] dipped the crust and gave it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. As soon as the bread was in his [Judas’] hand, Satan entered him.  30 Judas, with the piece of bread, left and it was night.” (John 13:21-27, 30).

            Judas, the apostle of Jesus, the preacher, the evangelist, the healer of  every illness and disease, trusted treasurer, then thief, conspirator, and betrayer let the dark desires of his heart be ruled by Satan and he went out into the night with a piece of bread, the symbol of Jesus’ offer of forgiveness in his hand.  In a moment, you will be offered a piece of bread from the Lord’s Table.  Jesus gives it to you and me as an offer of forgiveness and healing from whatever sin has come into our life.  Let us not be like Judas and leave here with the bread of forgiveness in our hand.  Let us instead take the bread life and be nourished in our faith.

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

[2] Ibid.

Aug 25 - Church Matters

Acts 18:24-28

Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church.  I suspect to some of you may feel my opening sentence fails to pass the grammar test because of the repetitive use of the word church.  But let’s think at that sentence for a moment.  “Welcome church,” is proper because you and I together are the church.  We are a congregation of Christian believers and seekers of God.  This use of the word church to describe a congregation is the third most common definition of church found in Webster’s Dictionary.  “Welcome church to the church.”  These words are expressing a welcome to the congregation to the physical building we call church.  The church is a building established for public worship.  This use of the word church is the most common definition of church in the dictionary.  “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church.”  The last use of the word church refers to those engaged in the ministry of the Gospel.  In many circles, church used in that way means specifically work that is to be done by clergy such as a priest or minister.  But we Baptists are a different breed.  We try to follow what the Bible says, and we believe it says everyone is charged with engaging in the ministry of the Gospel and not just those folks called reverend, pastor, minister, or whatever other title someone wants to use.  “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church,” means “welcome folks to this place of worship that together we can fully share the message of hope.”

I wanted to begin our time together talking about the multiple uses of the term church because often people in the world say, “Church does not matter anymore.”  Considering the varied definitions of church, how are we to interpret the statement “Church does not matter anymore.”  Does the person saying that mean, “The congregation (you) do not matter anymore.” Or does that person mean to say, “The building does not matter anymore.”  Or does that person mean to say, “The ministry of hope that we carry out does not matter anymore.”  It is difficult to know the mind of those from the world who say, “Church does not matter anymore.”

We are equally faced with statements, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need church.”  Does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need you (other Christians).  Or does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need public worship.”  Or do they mean, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need to be engage in the ministry of hope.”  It is equally hard to know the mind of Christians who chose to live and speak like the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to assure you church matters.  You matter!  This public worship space matters!  And the ministry of hope matters to God and may matter to other people more now than at any other time in history!  You, this space, and our ministry together matters because hope is needed now more than ever.

Last week, I was in a meeting of folks working on a conference to bring the government agencies, non-profit service providers, and the faith community together to work cooperatively to end homelessness in Saratoga County.  As we talked about the needs of the homeless, the non-profit providers said the people need food, housing, transportation, and money management skills in order to overcome their circumstances of homelessness.  Then there was a pause in the construct of the list of needs of the homeless and the leader of the group asked, “We have heard from the non-profit agencies, but what does the faith community think is the biggest need of homeless people?”  I responded, “They need hope.  It is the same need we all have.  Hope.  Without hope, people struggle and wonder, what is the point of living?”  That response led to collective efforts of government, non-profit groups, and faith communities to relabel our efforts to be called “Partners in Hope.”  Church matters because church (fellowship, worship, and ministry) matters because in its simplest form and in its totality, church offers hope.   

In the beginning of the Christian church, the focus was all about sharing the hope found in the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection.  We read today from the book of Acts which records for us the life of the early Christians.  Among the early Christians was a man named Apollos.

Apollos was a native of Alexandria, Egypt.  In the ancient near east, Alexandria was an intellectual center of the ancient world with a great collection of books.  Apollos traveled from Alexandria and was now in the city of Ephesus along the coastal plain of what is now modern-day Turkey.  In our reading today, we are told that Apollos “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord (Jesus).  And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.”  Apollos was a Christian who was sharing the news of hope as he moved from Alexandria to Ephesus; a walk of 1,800 miles.  Apollos was a powerful speaker and he knew well the Old Testament.  Apollos knew about Jesus and taught accurately for as much as he knew.  But when it came to the subject of baptism, Apollos knew nothing of Jesus’ command to be baptized as an expression of faith in Jesus and through that faith and baptism to have the Holy Spirit led the believer in a new life.  A new life in a congregation, in public worship, and ministry of hope.

One day, Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue; a place of public worship.  In the crowd that day, was a Christian couple named Priscilla and Aquila.  They were Jews expelled years earlier from Rome by an edict of the emperor.  They had become Christian after hearing about Jesus through the teaching of another missionary, named Paul.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos preach, they noted his deficient understanding about baptism.  We have a good picture that Apollos was in the pulpit of the public worship space (church), preaching to the assembled group (church), about the ministry of hope in Jesus (church).  Apollos was uniformed or misinformed about the ministry and two members of the church realized it.  Right away, we see that church matters to the faithful.  None of us, including pastors, are faultless in our understanding of God and the Scriptures.  We need each other.  For this reason, I believe it is practically speaking impossible to follow the ways of Christ and not be a part of church, in all its expressions.  I do not believe you can be a Christian and not need church.  To believe you can be a Christian and remain separate from other believers is contrary to the example of Jesus.  It is contrary to the example of Jesus’ disciples.  To believe you can be a Christian and not need church is contrary to teachings of the Bible itself.  The world and worldliness are just too strong and to influential for us to avoid the pitfalls of evil by going it alone.  There are also far too many other belief systems drawing people away from God for us to go it alone.  Church matters to our spiritual development.

Priscilla and Aquila knew Apollos was a gifted preacher, but he was lacking in his understanding.  Our reading says, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside, meaning in private, to explain to him the way of God more accurately.  What a great teaching for us about church.  When we hear something that is not quite right, we have a choice.  Ignore it and let the person go on thinking incorrectly or speak up and help them.  This couple could not ignore the misunderstanding of Apollos about baptism.  So, they spoke up but in a manner of Christian love.  They did not shout aloud their concern and embarrass him, nor did they go to everyone around Apollos and point out his deficient understanding.  Instead, they went to Apollos in private that he may know the way of God more accurately.  This is a great example of the way we should conduct ourselves in all our dealings with one another.  If we have a problem with someone, we need to practice Christian ethics in dealing with it.  We need to address the matter.  We should not go around telling others we are going to address this privately.  That is almost the same as addressing in publicly.  Likewise, if the matter is resolved in private – leave it there.  Do not share with others that we addressed an issue privately and now it is resolved.  Apollos learned and the church (congregation, public worship, and ministry of hope) grew stronger.

Apollos then lived out his story as a more complete messenger of hope.  Living out the story of hope then is the role of the church.  It is the role of this church.  Together, God has called upon us to be the church where no one loses hope.  Together, we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this given spot.  Every person here shares in being the presence of Jesus.  It is together that we speak about God and together we worship God.  It is together that we grow in life and we talk with one another about how God is shaping us into the image of Jesus.  It is together that we celebrate every small victory in life and together we walk with one another through the difficulties and trials of life.  We are the living hope of God because we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this spot at this time in life.  We are partners in hope with Jesus and one another.  That was and is God’s plan; there is no backup or alternative plan.

In 2018, a music group Cochren & Company, released a new song called Church, with the subtitle, “Take Me Back.”  It is a song of hope for those returning to church and to those seeking the hope of the church.

The song says in part: “Take me back, to the place that feels like home.  To the people I can depend on.  To the faith that's in my bones.  Take me back.  To a preacher and a verse.  Where they've seen me at my worst.  To the love I had at first.  Oh, I want to go to church.  Tried to walk on my own but I wound up lost.  Now I'm making my way to the foot of the cross.  It's not a trophy for the winners.  It's a shelter for the sinners.  And it's right where I belong.  I want to go to church.  Oh, more than an obligation.  It's our foundation.  The family of God.  I know it's hard.  But we need each other.  We're sisters and brothers.  Take me back.”

Welcome home church to the church that together we can be about the church.  Being a church where no one loses hope is not about being an exclusive club or group.  We must always be open and reaching out to others and explaining with grace why they see hope within us.  When others see hope in us, they are seeing Jesus.  We have hope because of Jesus.  People will see that.  When others see hope in us, we have become an instrument of God. 

It pleasing to be here, that we are a church, worshipping in church this day, and that we are a church engaged in the ministry of hope.

Aug 11 - Peter - Forgiven, Restored, and Called

John 21:15-19

Acts 4:1-15   

The last few weeks we have been exploring the life of a man from the New Testament named Peter.  Last week, we saw that Peter pledge to defend Jesus from all enemies, even if it cost Peter his own life.  Then within a matter of a few hours, we saw Peter deny ever knowing Jesus not one time but three times.  Today, I would like us to complete our review of Peter’s life by exploring what happened to Peter when Peter encountered Jesus again following Peter’s denials.  The conversation between Jesus and Peter was a powerful one for through it we can feel Peter experience his denial of Jesus but see Jesus forgiving Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus again, but see Jesus restoring Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus a third time, but see Jesus calling Peter.  Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation is important to us because we learn that God’s love compels Him to forgive, to restore, and to call each person who will receive Him.  God’s love transforms lives.

We do not talk enough about love; God’s real love.  We need to talk more about love.  Allow me to give you an illustration.  A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a two-day training program called, ASIST, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.  This training equips attendees to intervene in the life of someone who has become suicidal.  There were 32 people in my class.  Thirty-one people who were social workers of various stripes and one church pastor.  We learned that people who have suicidal thoughts often feel alone, isolated, and hopeless for the future.  We learned strategies to talk to suicidal people and to help them develop choices to keep themselves safe.  When the two days of training had been completed, the instructor asked the entire class, “Suppose you intervened and kept someone from suicide, what services could your agency offer to that person to help them move forward with their life?”  A couple of the social workers stood up and gave long and impressive lists of life skill training programs, workshops, and seminars offered by their agency.  I squirmed a bit in my seat because I thought the point was missed.  Life is not about programs, workshops, and seminars.  So, I stood up and said, “We offer love.”  The room was very quiet after I spoke because I think people know life without love cannot be sustained.  We just do not talk about love; genuine love.  And yet the Bible speaks over and over about love.  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).  “Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).  “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43, 44).

Jesus words about love were carefully chosen.  He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  While Jesus’ statement is about love, he showed how special God’s love is by included one of the most important words in our language.  That word is the word “but.”  I have spoken of this word in previous sermons.  Whenever we see or heard the word, “but,” we should pay attention because that small word is full of power.  The word but is intended to have the audience ignore what is said before the word “but” and give extra attention to the words that comes after the word “but.”  We might say in a tongue in cheek way, that what follows your “but” is most important.  Let me offer an illustration.  Two people get into a heated argument.  Harsh and angry words are exchanged.  The two people separate from each other for a time.  Then one person goes to the other and says, “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said...”  You can fill in the blank from your own experience.  The speaker offered an apology in the first part of the sentence and then took the apology away by using the word but leaving the focus on the second part of the sentence; that the fault lies with the other person.  Hear the sentence again.  “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said....”  The focus is on words following the “but.”  This is the essence of Peter’s experience with Jesus from today’s Bible reading.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus forgave Peter.  The focus is forgiving Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again, but Jesus restored Peter.  The focus is Peter’s restoration.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The focus is on giving Peter a mission.  Why would Jesus forgive, restore, and call Peter?  Simply because Jesus loved Peter.

Let’s revisit our New Testament reading from earlier today and listen in as Jesus speaks to Peter.  Please turn with me to the Gospel of John, Chapter 21, beginning with verse 15.

As we enter this scene, we find that Peter and six other disciples with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  They had just finished breakfast.  “15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Let’s pause there for a moment.  First, notice Jesus refers to Peter as “Simon, son of John.”  Jesus referred to Peter in this manner only one time previously.  That occurred when Jesus first met Peter.  John tells us, “And he [Andrew] brought him [his brother, Simon] to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him [Simon] and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:42).  Jesus began this conversation with Peter along the shores of the Sea of Galilee by referring to him in the manner Peter was known before he met Jesus.  This must have grabbed Peter’s attention.  Jesus’ words were penetrating Peter’s being.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  These meaning the other disciples.  “Peter do you love me more than these [other disciples] do [love me]?”  It is a reflective question about the inner heart of Peter.  Jesus question may have reminded Peter that when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, Peter said, “Though they [the other disciples may] all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33).  With those words of bravado, Peter was saying his love for Jesus was greater than the love of any other disciple for Jesus.  Peter’s words condemned the other disciples.  And yet, it is not hard to imagine that Jesus’ words “Do you love me?” brought Peter’s words of denying Jesus into Peter’s mind.  A servant girl had come up to Peter and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” Peter said, “I do not know what you mean” (Matthew 26:69-70).

Now, after Peter’s denial of Jesus, Peter was being asked by Jesus, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples] do?”  Peter thought for a moment taking in his bravado and denial of Jesus and said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

This was a humbling experience for Peter.  Peter had denied Jesus.  Now Jesus wanted to know if Peter still loved him.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  When we express our love for another person, especially for the first time, we wonder how that person will respond.  Will our words panic them or please them?  Peter wondered how Jesus would respond to Peter’s expression of love.  After some quiet moments, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.”  The Greek word used for feed means literally to provide nourishment and tend while grazing.  Jesus was telling Peter to care for Jesus’ disciples.  Peter must have felt relieved the conversation was over.  Jesus had received Peter’s love and Jesus called Peter back into his life.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had forgiven Peter.

But the conversation was not over.  Verse 16, “Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Peter must have wondered, “Why is Jesus asking me this question again?”  Perhaps, Peter recalled his second denial of Jesus.  Matthew recorded Peter’s second denial this way, “Then he [Peter] went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”  He [Peter] denied it again, with an oath: ‘I don’t know the man!’”  (Matthew 26:71-72).  Again, the strength of Peter dried up before the voice of servant girl and he denied ever knowing Jesus.  Peter now had to sit quietly and think about Jesus’ question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  After a few moments, Peter said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  After a moment of quiet reflection on those words, Jesus said to Peter, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16).  Peter affirmed he loved Jesus, the person he once denied ever knowing.  In response, Jesus commanded Peter to tend those most precious to Jesus, his flock, Jesus’ congregation.  This was a position of authority that before his denial Peter was told would be his.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had restored Peter.  I can imagine that Peter was relieved, believing this conversation was over.

But the conversation is not over.  Look at verse 17, “He [Jesus] said to him [Peter] the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he [Jesus] said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”  Scripture said Peter grieved.  In the Greek language of the original Gospel writings, the word used for grieving was λυπέω, lypeō, lü-pe'-ō, which means to be sorrowful, or to be thrown into sorrow and sadness.  Peter was crushed and he began to weep.  Perhaps Peter remembered the emotion of his third denial.  You see Scripture tells us, “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them [Jesus’ follower], for your accent betrays you.”  Then he [Peter] began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:73-74).  And after Peter’s third denial, Peter left his accusers and wept bitterly.  Now again on the beach in Galilee and Peter grieved because Jesus asked him for a third time, “Do you love me?”  Having collected himself enough, Peter replied to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)  Peter’s response carries an admission that nothing is hidden from Jesus.  Jesus knew the painful denials, for Peter had denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter to care for those who would become part of Jesus’ church.

Peter’s painful past has been dealt with and Peter had been reconciled and made right with Jesus.  Peter denied Jesus but Jesus forgave Peter.  Peter again denied Jesus but Jesus restored Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The forgiveness, restoration, and calling not because of Peter’s love for Jesus, but because of Jesus love for Peter.

Now here is the good news.  Jesus wants to do the same for you and me.  Jesus wants to remove the poison of sin from each one of us and gives us a new task, a new meaning to life.  “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

Suppose for a moment, you were sitting on the beach with Jesus beside you.  And Jesus said to you, “Do you love me?”  What behavior or disappointment in life might that cause you to recall?  Think about.  Now give it over to Jesus and do not carry it any longer because Jesus will forgive.  If after you have done that, Jesus asked again, “Do you love me?” what would come to our mind this time.  Think about it and give that moment of denial or disappointment over to him.  Jesus will restore you.  Finally, if Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?”  what then would come to mind.  Give that over to Jesus and he will call you to do great things for the kingdom of God.

Jesus promises to forgive, restore, and call each person who comes to him.  We may think we are not worthy but God’s word says to us, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I am glad you are hear today.  We have only one thing to offer you and that is “the love of God.”  Let us pray.

Jul 28 - Walking with Peter in Faith and Fear

Matthew 14:22-33

            As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good idea for us to explore some characters from the Bible to see how their lives and their experiences could help us in our walk with God.  The first character I chose for us to explore was a man named Simon, who Jesus nicknamed Peter.  We explored Peter’s first encounter with Jesus along the River Jordan and Peter’s first words of the New Testament when Peter asked Jesus to fish on the Sea of Galilee.

            Today, we have a chance to join Jesus and Peter, again on the Sea of Galilee.  The scene we are going to look at is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  It was an important event in Peter’s life but as powerful a moment that it turned out to be, Peter never spoke of it.  Peter is never quoted as telling the story to others except to say that in all he experienced with Jesus, Peter became convinced Jesus was the Son of God.  Sometimes, I think we get more interested in the details of the miracles described in the Gospels than to recognize the central point of the miracles and the entirety of the Gospels was to have us see that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Gospel of Matthew, a Roman officer at the crucifixion of Jesus summed up Jesus’ life this way, “Surely, he was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).  The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel says this, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  The ending of the Gospel of John says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30).  Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers came to believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God.  They believed God exists.  They believed that God sent Jesus, his Son, with a message of hope for all people.  They believed Jesus was different from all other people in part because of what they saw Jesus do but primarily they believed in the specialness of Jesus because he was raised from the dead.  Because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, they believed Jesus’ claims that he was the Son of God.  They trusted Jesus’ words that in believing in him they would be freed from the penalty of sin because he, Jesus, paid that penalty.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to an atheist that God existed.  They believed God existed based upon faith.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to those who believed in God that Jesus was God’s Son.  They believed Jesus was the Son of God based upon faith.  How someone comes to believe in God or Jesus has never changed over the centuries.  We only believe in Jesus because we have faith.  We cannot argue or force anyone else to believe either in God or in Jesus as his Son.  These are faith decisions.  So in this regard we are very much the same as those who saw Jesus in person, including Peter.  A life with God is based on faith.

            In one way though, we, at least in the United States, are very different from those who saw Jesus in person.  The original believers in Jesus believed by faith who Jesus was by overcoming their fear in believing.  For the early Christians, to believe in Jesus as the Son of God was a risky decision.  Believing in Jesus put their livelihood and life at risk.  If the religious leaders of the day did not attack you for your beliefs, the governmental authorities, the Romans, would and did attack.  The original believers had to deal with their fear.  We are a little different because we can believe, we can have faith in Jesus, without fear to life and limb.  And yet, for many people today, fear still prevents faith.  Fear of being different, or thought to be strange, or uneducated, and the list goes on keeps many from believing in God and Jesus.

            So we know, faith and fear have a relationship.  Faith and fear are opposite sides of the same coin.  In a coin toss, only one side of the coin can be showing.  If we are in fear, then faith is not present.  If faith is revealed, then fear is covered.  Peter had to deal with fear and faith.  Even though we can believe without fear that someone will arrest us or harm us for believing, we too must deal with our own fear and faith equation.  Let’s begin with the faith and fear of the disciples and Peter with words from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.

            As we enter this scene, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.  Verse 22, “Immediately [after the miraculous feeding] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”  The Jesus and his disciples were traveling back and forth and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee by boat.  Jesus told his disciples to leave by boat for the other side of the sea and he would join them later.  Verse 23, “23 After he [Jesus] had dismissed them [the disciples and the crowds], he [Jesus] went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”  Jesus took time to be alone to pray.  He did not want the distractions of people and noise to interfere with his time with God.  We should keep in our minds the image of Jesus praying alone and quiet as an example of we should be doing as well.  The story continued, “Later that night, he [Jesus] was there alone, 24 and the boat [with his disciples] was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them [the disciples in the boat], walking on the lake.  26 When the disciples saw him [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.”

            And the disciples cried out in fear.  Our story begins with fear.  Fear is something we all know about.  No one had to teach us to express fear; we know what fear is from the day we are born.  In fear, a newborn will cry out.  We later learn how to apply fear to different circumstances than just the discomforts of a newborn.  So fear is part instinct, part learned, and part taught.  Fear comes when we believe there is a threat to us.  Think for a moment that you are alone one night in a neighborhood that looks rough.  You are not sure where you are, how you got there, or where exactly to go.  You have no phone.  So you begin to walk cautiously down the street in the hopes you are heading toward safety.  You are anxious, you are fearful of the unknown, and then across the street from you stands a dark building.  Every little noise seems like a very large noise.  Suddenly, the door to the building across the street bursts open and there stands, six large teenage boys who shout words at you that you did not understand.  The six large boys start running toward you yelling and screaming that you should not to move.  Do you perceive them threat?  I suspect everyone here would feel threatened.  In response to the threat, you are in fear and you begin to prepare yourself to deal with this threat.  Your body tightens up.  Your heart starts beating faster.  You are listening more intently.  The boys come up to you and encircle you from all sides.  Now that they are only inches away from you, they seem much bigger and stronger looking.  They are laughing; not with you but at you.  You are in fear.  Finally, one of them speaks to you and tells you they saw you walking down their street alone.  They know you are not from here.  The boy speaking then says, “We decided we needed to leave our Bible Study to see if you needed some help in getting home.”  What did they say?  They left their Bible study to help you to get home safely.  I suspect everyone here would breathe a sigh of relief because you believe, you trust, you have faith, that these boys are not a threat; they are, in fact, going to provide you safety.  This little story teaches us that fear and faith have a relationship.  It also teaches us that being we believe being a Christian matters and that just saying, “You are a Christian” should be the source of comfort to others.  So we should be telling others we are Christians more often than we do.

            So fear is something we know and Jesus’ disciples were in fear because they believed Jesus was a ghost.  Who else could walk on water than a spirit?  Certainly, a man could not walk on the surface of the water. The disciples believed Jesus to be a ghost or a spirit.  Historians tell us that people in Jesus’ day believed that the bottom of the Sea of Galilee was a portal, a doorway, to the underworld of the dead.  The disciples may have perceived a spirit had escaped the underworld and was now threating the lives of the disciples; just like we might have perceived those 6 teenage boys presented a threat in our story from a couple of minutes ago.

            The screams and cries of the disciples altered Jesus that the men were afraid.  Verse 27, “But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  Fear cannot exist when trust or faith is in play.  Jesus’ words, at this point, changes nothing of the very real circumstances his disciples face.  It was dark.  The wind was howling.  The waves were rough.  The men were tired.  And they were afraid.  But Jesus said, “Take courage.  It is I.  There is no reason for fear.”  In a reassuring manner, Jesus was inviting his disciples to calm their bodies (Take Courage), to control their thoughts (It is I), and to confront their fears (Do not be afraid).  Reality had not changed but trust or faith is being brought into play.  By example, a child may be in bed asleep, but a disturbing dream scares them, and they scream out.  A parent enters the room and soothes the child reassuring them it was all just a bad dream.  The parent tucks the child back into bed, rubs the child’s head, and says, “It is OK, everything will be all right.”  The child goes back to sleep because they trust the comforting reassurances of the parent.  The parent has invited the child to calm their body, control their thoughts, and confront their fears.  Trust or faith in the parent is being brought into play.  We can understand that scene.  The same is occurring here between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus was inviting all his disciples to bring trust or faith into play.

            Now we come to the lesson about trust, faith, and fear uniquely from the disciple, Peter.  In verse 28, we read, “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  Peter wanted to trust Jesus even further, but he wanted to extend himself only if Jesus invited him to do so.  29 “Come,” he [Jesus] said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” 

Peter was doing so well.  He stepped out of the boat.  This is a wonderful illustration of faith replacing fear.  Peter charged with faith walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus. But then Peter looked away.  Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his focus.  Peter switched his attention to the wind and waves.  Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but his purpose became avoiding the winds and waves.  Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water.  When Peter acted in faith, when he trusted what Jesus told him to do, Peter became more and more like Jesus, even being able to walk on water.  But when Peter went back to his old ways of being concerned about the winds and waves, all was lost, and Peter sank.

Now came a crucial moment in the story.  Peter was sinking under the waves.  His life was at risk.  He had only time enough to make one choice for safety.  He could either ask for help from his fellow shipmates or he could call for help from Jesus.  Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  In Peter’s most desperate moment of fear, Peter placed his faith in Jesus to save him – and Jesus did so.  “32 And when they [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Fear and faith had a relationship in Peter’s life, and it has a relationship in your life and in mine.  This causes us to ask ourselves, “What do I fear?  Who do I fear?”  Think about those questions for a moment.  With those thoughts of fearful things in our minds, I am going to invite you to calm your bodies, control your thoughts, and confront your fears with these words from a man named Jesus who stands beside you at this moment.  “Take courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The man Jesus knows about your fears and mine.  This man Jesus knows we worry about living, pain, uncertainty, loneliness, disease, strife, and that these winds and waves of human life toss about and make life difficult, frustrating, and even pointless.  This man Jesus knows that God is above all these things and like a loving parent wants us to know, “It’s OK.  Everything will be all right.”  This man Jesus knows that our fear can eased and replaced by faith; not faith in ourselves or others who are in the same boat as we are in.  But by placing our faith or trust in God for our lives in the present and for all eternity, the winds and waves of life that toss us in fear will be stilled.  All we need to do to replace our fear with faith is say the words of Peter, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately, this man Jesus will reach out to you and grab hold of you.  Why will Jesus do so?  Because this man, Jesus, is the Son of God.  Have faith.

Jul 14 - Peter's First Words

Luke 5:1-11

One of the series of sermons every pastor puts together at least once in their ministry deals with Jesus’ last words.  These are the words Jesus spoke from the cross just before his death.  There are seven words, actually full sentences, that Jesus spoke before his death spread across the four Gospels.  They are powerful words.  Jesus said:

  • Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34
  • Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.  Luke 23:43
  • Woman, behold your son.  Son, behold your mother.  John 19:26, 27
  • My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34
  • I thirst.  John 19:28
  • It is finished.  John 19:30
  • Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  Luke 23:46

There is a great deal of meaning we can gather from each of these sayings.  I offered my first sermon series on these words for the weeks prior to Easter in 2011.

People have a fascination with what are called “dying declarations,” the last words someone says just before that person dies.  There is a belief that in the final moments of life the person will be truthful because they have nothing to lose.  But I wonder if we could learn something equally important if we explored someone’s first words?  Now I know many of you are thinking, “There is not much to be learned from our first words as a child when are first words are likely ‘Momma’ or ‘Dadda.’”  That isn’t quite what I had in mind.  I was wondering if we could learn from someone’s first words when that person dies to themselves and follows Jesus as a new person.  Jesus said, ““Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  If you are born again, if you have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, then you have died to yourself and live through Jesus as a new creation.  As a newborn in Christ, do you remember your first words?  Do you remember what you said or what you thought when you decided to follow him?  Perhaps you do or maybe you do not recall.  Fortunately, we have some first words and thoughts of other people who encountered Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament.  Today, I would like us to look at the first words of a man named Peter.

As we talked last week, Peter was the nickname Jesus gave a man named Simon when the two men first met.  It seems that before Simon said anything, Jesus said to him, “From now on you will be called Cephas,” which is translated to mean Peter.  Cephas was an Aramaic word for rock or stone.  Jesus and Peter met along the banks of the River Jordan, about 100 miles from Peter’s home of Capernaum, where Peter worked as a fisherman.  As we open today’s New Testament passage, Chapter 5 of Luke, we find Jesus and Peter are together again.  Only this time, they are very near Peter’s hometown. 

Peter’s new acquaintance, Jesus, had returned with Peter to his hometown.  Jesus was preaching a message of repentance; encouraging everyone to who would listen to turn toward God.  Peter heard Jesus say that Jesus had been anointed by God to proclaim good news to the poor and that God sent him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:14-19).  These words from Jesus were received curiously at first by some people and by others with anger and outrage because they did not believe Jesus was from God.

Beyond the preaching, Peter saw Jesus cast out an evil spirit from a man.  Closer to home, Jesus came into Peter’s house and found that Peter’s mother-in-law suffering from a high fever; meaning she was seriously ill and would die.  Jesus spoke words of healing to her and immediately Peter’s mother-in-law got up from her bed.  Soon thereafter, Jesus began healing many people of their illnesses.  Peter was taking in all that he had seen and heard from Jesus and yet curiously, none of the Gospel writers record any of Peter’s words or reactions to Jesus’ teachings or miracles.  Then Jesus and Peter had an encounter that broke Peter’s silence.  Eventually, that is true for all of people.  Eventually, every person will have an encounter with Jesus that loosens their tongue and they will either accept Jesus or reject him.  Peter’s encounter where his first recorded words are found is in Chapter 5 of Luke starting at verse 1.

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.”  Luke painted for us a wonderful picture of people eager to hear the word of God.  So eager and so many were the people that they began crowding Jesus along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  I think it would be great to have a worship service like the one Luke described right along the edge of a peaceful lake.  I think that would be a very powerful moment.  In that scene along the lake that Luke described, Jesus seemed to have avoided being pushed into the water by the encroaching crowd by getting into a boat that was along the waters’ edge.

The boat was owned by our friendly fisherman, Simon, nicknamed Peter.  Peter was busy when Jesus got into his boat.  Peter had just returned from a night of fishing.  While Peter listened to Jesus, he and other fisherman, sat on shore cleaning and mending their nets.  Peter was a businessman and a property owner.  He had bills to pay and a family to feed.  He had a boat and nets that required care.  Peter had responsibilities and a lifestyle that was in many ways very similar to our own.  Up until this point, Jesus had not asked anything of Peter.  Now he does.  Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked Peter to move the boat into the shallow waters along the edge of the lake so Jesus could finish teaching the crowds.  Peter left the work he was engaged in and did as Jesus asked.

The significance of this simple exchange between Jesus and Peter could be easily overlooked.  What did Jesus do in this exchange?  He asked Peter to invest a little bit of his time and a small use of Peter’s property.  Peter agreed.  Peter’s words in response to Jesus’ requests were not recorded, but his first actions were telling.  We observe two things.  First, Peter obeyed Jesus by stopping what Peter was doing, cleaning nets, and doing what Jesus wanted him to do, getting in the boat.  That is called obedience.  We don’t like that word much these days unless it is us asking others to do as we ask.  Then we want obedience.  Second, Peter began using his time to further Jesus’ ministry and put his property, a boat, at Jesus’ disposal for a purpose it was not originally intended.  Peter gave us some important examples to follow.  First, we must be willing to put aside the things we want to do so that we can do what Jesus wants done.  I once asked someone to join a Bible study.  They said they would have to think about what they would have to sacrifice something else to join.  This is backwards thinking.  When we do something that is not with God, then that time is being sacrificed.  Second, we must be willing to invest a little bit of our time in Jesus’ ministry.  I spoke this past Thursday at a prayer breakfast and my topic was on loneliness.  I encouraged people to reach out someone who is lonely because real relief from the suffering of loneliness requires the cooperation of only one other person.  We can be that person if we give of our time for Jesus’ ministry.  Third, we must be willing to let our property be used in a way that it was not intended.  For example, we can let our homes be used for Bible studies or use our vehicle that we bought to help others get to doctors’ appointments or to church.  That is not why we bought our homes or our cars, but we can repurpose our property for Jesus’ ministry.  This is what Peter showed us here.  Doing so requires no words, just actions.

Our story continued, “When he [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon [Peter], ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’  Simon [Peter] answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

Jesus again asked Peter to follow his path.  This time, Jesus asked Peter to use his talent, time, and treasure and move away from the shore and let his net down.  Peter was free to say, “No.”  And at long last, Peter spoke.  Peter’s first words were, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”  Peter, the experienced fisherman, was sharing information about his profession with his friend, Jesus, who was raised as a carpenter.  Peter had fished all night under the favorable circumstances and caught nothing.  To now fish during the day seemed futile.  Peter was sharing with Jesus his belief that fishing now would be an unsuccessful event.  By experience, Peter should not lower his nets.  Peter shared with Jesus his human understanding.  Then Peter said something key for a faith walk.  Peter said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  As I have mentioned in previous messages, the word “but” is one of the most theologically important words in the Bible.  When we read the word “but” we should take notice because something important is going to be said or done.  Peter said, “But because you [Jesus] say so, I will let down the nets.”  Peter’s first words show that Peter was ready to walk a life based on faith in Jesus and not based on his own understanding.  This is not easy to walk in faith but it is essential to walk in faith to become the person Jesus wants us to be.  Every so often, Becky and I will talk about our lives just before we met.  We joke that if anyone had said that we would be married to each other, now for 33 years, and be serving two churches as pastor and pastor’s wife we would have laughed and called thought them a fool.  There was nothing in our mind or plans to do that; it would not have made any sense.  But God had other plans and fortunately we followed them.  Peter said, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  What is Jesus asking you to do that makes no practical sense and he awaits to hear from you to repeat Peter’s first words, “But because you say so, I will.”

Now Peter, the experienced fisherman put down his nets in the deeper water.  Luke wrote, “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.”  Peter went from catching nothing the night before to catching so many large fish that his property was at risk.  Peter’s nets were at risk of breaking and his boat was at risk of sinking.  So large was the catch that even the help of Peter’s partners and their boat put both boats at risk of sinking.  In the days prior to this moment, Peter witnessed Jesus cast out demons and heal the sick, but this was a new type of miracle.  Nature obeyed Jesus.  Who other than someone with God’s own powers could have control over nature?

The realization that Jesus was someone unique and beyond normal measures fell upon Peter.  “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’”  Peter saw things for the way they were.  Jesus was holy and empowered with the presence of God.  Peter confessed he was a sinful man and that sinful people have no place in the presence of holiness.  Peter believed that in his sinfulness he had nothing to offer to a holy person other than to contaminate the holy person with his sinfulness.  Peter was warning Jesus that Jesus must leave Peter’s presence before Peter’s sinfulness changed Jesus holiness.

Peter’s response shows us that Peter was an emotional man and Peter was right in some ways.  Peter was right that sinfulness and holiness cannot be together.  The Apostle Paul would later put it this way, “14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).  Peter was concerned his sinfulness would change Jesus’ holiness.  What Peter did not realize was that God works the other way around.  Jesus’ holiness would change Peter’s sinfulness.  This change, this transformation, of Peter would be so pronounced that Peter’s sinful would be eliminated and Peter’s record before God would be that of Jesus’ holiness.  And this same transformation is available to you and me.  Jesus reassured this would be so by telling Peter, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” With these words, Peter and his partners (Andrew, James, and John), “11 [So they] pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”  Peter was beginning his walk of faith with Jesus and their transformation to holiness.

Peter’s first recorded words were few, yet they are instructive for us.  Peter was obedient to Jesus.  Peter was willing to talk with Jesus and go a different direction in his life based on faith.  “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Peter confessed to his own sinful nature and confessed to the holiness of Jesus.  Peter received Jesus assurance that following Jesus would transform his life.

God has given each of us one life to live, forever.  We had nothing to do with or say in our first birth into this life.  But we have a say in being born again in Jesus and living a transformed life and being able to come into the presence of God’s holiness.  Peter’s first words in his new life give us an example to follow into that new life.  Therefore, we are left with the question, “What will be our first words in a new life with Jesus?”

July 7 - Simon Peter Encounters Jesus

John 1:19-42

I thought for the summer it would be worthwhile for us to explore some major and minor characters from the Bible to understand their life and how their examples can help us become closer to God.  The first person I want us to look at will take a few weeks to do.  He is known by a couple of different names because when he encountered Jesus he received a nickname.  How many of you have a nickname?  Now some nicknames are common.  A boy named Robert may have the nickname of Bob or Rob.  A girl named Margaret may have the nickname Maggie.  Those nicknames we understand, and the nickname carries no significance.  Other times, nicknames have some meaning on their own.  A nickname may speak of a quality about a person.  Someone may be given the nickname “Sugar,” because they are always a sweet towards others.  A nickname may be given reflecting a physical trait.  Near my hometown was a restaurant named “Tiny Jim’s.”  The owner, Jim, was short and weighed in around 400 pounds.  Being called Tiny Jim was an obvious play on Jim’s physical size.  Nicknames that carry significance can be positive or they can be quite negative because nicknames of significance reflect how others see that person.  Nicknames always start within a small group and become very powerful symbols for how that group views that person.  In the Bible, there are some people who receive nicknames.  Today, I want us to begin exploring the life of one such person who began his life with the name Simon bar Jonah; meaning Simon son of Jonah and later acquired the name Peter.

Our story about Simon begins in an out of the way place along the River Jordan.  The river has its headwaters at the Sea of Galilee, a body of fresh water, and the river travels through the wilderness for about 150 miles ending in the Dead Sea, a highly salty body of water.  The scene of today’s story was remote from the surrounding towns and cities and yet many people had come to this spot.  Simon was from the town of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He was about 100 miles from home.  People, including Simon, were drawn to this spot along the River Jordan to hear the message of a fiery preacher named John.  We know him by his nickname John the Baptist or John the Baptizer.  Let’s turn to that story as told in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1.

The story begins with a key character, the fiery preacher, John.  People were curious about John.  His message was simple and powerful.  He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  Then John called upon those who heard his words to be baptized in the river as a sign, a symbol, that they had repented, that is they turned to God.  The language used by John and his ability to draw crowds of people out into the wilderness to hear his message captured the attention of the religious leaders.  They wanted to know was John the special messenger from God called Messiah who they believed would restore Israel to its former glory?  The religious leaders wanted to know if John’s name be changed to Messiah?

Let’s begin at verse 19.  “19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”  21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”  He said, “I am not.”  “Are you the Prophet?”  He answered, “No.”  22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”  23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”  John was trying to be as clear as possible that he was calling people to come back to God.  His message was simple, turn your life toward God for God was about to do something marvelous.

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”  26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

So John received a nickname, John the Baptist or the Baptizer, because of the things he did.  He baptized people in water as a symbol of their commitment or recommitment to God.  We still follow John’s practice today and baptize people who have made the commitment to follow God.  Baptism is a wonderful and powerful moment of closeness with God.  In this church, we do not baptize infants but only young people and adults who are able to choose to be baptized because they understand the significance of their decision.  If you have never been baptized, I want to again encourage you to speak to me about expressing yourself to God through the waters of baptism.

Our story continues.  “29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”  32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

The Chosen One was another way of saying, “Messiah.”  John the Baptizer gave the name Messiah to Jesus as well as the name Lamb of God.  The name Messiah came about because John could see who Jesus was.  John could see that Jesus was sent by God to bring about a new kingdom of peace.  The name Lamb of God came about because John could see what Jesus would do.  Lambs were sacrificed as an expression of regret for sin.  John could see that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was superior in all ways because his sacrifice would remove not just the regret over the sin but would remove sin itself.  John’s use of names for Jesus was not an accident.  John was beginning the process of trying to describe the importance of Jesus to the people.  Others in the New Testament would add names to Jesus trying to describe the many dimensions of Jesus.  There would be about 50 titles and names given to Jesus.

As we continue with our story, we find John the Baptizer with two of his disciples.  “35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”  They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”  39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”  So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.”

Again, we see John name Jesus, “The Lamb of God.”  Two of John’s disciples leave him and follow Jesus.  When they approached Jesus, they gave Jesus another name, “Rabbi or Teacher.”  We learn two things from the use of the name Rabbi.  First, John’s disciples wanted to learn from Jesus because Rabbi’s taught their students or disciples.  Second, to call someone Rabbi was a sign, a signal, that you wanted to become like them.  It was a symbol that you wanted to be a devoted student.  Some ancient text suggest that students of a Rabbi tried to imitate everything about their Rabbi, including the way the Rabbi walked.  While we do not need to physically walk like Jesus, the key for us here is that when John’s disciples first encountered Jesus, their greatest desire was to spend time with Jesus.  So significant was this moment of first spending time with Jesus that the precise hour of the day was recorded as four in the afternoon.  Spending time with Jesus is key to our life.  I know a few people who engage with Jesus through reading a devotional or their Bible every day at 8:00 in the morning.  Their nickname might be “8:00-Cindy,” or “8:00 Mike,” because you can set your watch to the time they will be with Jesus.  Time with Jesus, learning or in prayer, or meditation is fuel for our life.  It is what makes straight our path. 

Now our story continues with one more encounter.  “40 Andrew, [Simon Peter’s brother], was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ [another name or title]). 42 And he [Andrew] brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him [Simon] and said, “You are Simon son of John. [In some translations it is “Simon bar Jonah.”]  You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).” 

We finally meet Simon and it seems that before Simon could say a word, Jesus gave Simon a nickname, Cephas.  In the language of Jesus day, which was Aramaic, Cephas meant rock or stone.  The original New Testament manuscripts were written in Greek, not Aramaic, so Cephas or stone in Aramaic was translated to stone in Greek which is Petras.  The English adaptation of the Greek “Petras,” becomes the familiar name to us “Peter.”

Jesus perceived Simon as a rock.  Was it Simon’s physical build that Jesus was referring to?  It is likely that Simon was a physically strong man since he was fisherman accustomed to rowing boats and hauling in nets of fish.  But is seems unlikely that Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, would waste his time giving someone a physical nickname.  What then was it that Jesus saw in Simon?  If it was not physical, then Jesus must have looked past the appearance of Simon and found something deeper.  Jesus said, “From now on you will be called Cephas, ‘the rock.’”  A rock is hard.  A rock is something people use to build upon.  A rock can be decorative and pretty but most often it is rough, strong, and not easily moved.  Jesus’ nickname for Simon, now Peter, started in a small group.  We only know that Jesus, Peter, and Andrew were present when Simon received this name.  Today, we see that the name Peter grew from this small group and is worldwide.  What did Jesus see in Simon that would later lead to millions of people being named Peter.  Cities, hospitals, churches, and universities bear Simon’s nickname, Peter.  Why?  As we will see, in nearly every episode of Jesus’ life and ministry, Peter was close at hand.  Jesus saw this would be so when he first met Simon.  Jesus could see past the person Simon was to see the person Peter would become.  What was it that Jesus saw?

We will explore the answer to that question in the next few weeks but at this point, I would like you to consider a question.  If Jesus were to give you a nickname describing the potential he saw in you, the person you could become in and through him, what nickname would you hope Jesus might choose for you?  What potential do you have with Jesus?  Maybe Jesus would call you Nahum, which means “comforter.”  Or perhaps Jesus would call you Alexis, which means “defender.”  Maybe you would be called Pacifica, meaning “peacemaker.”  Indeed, what nickname would you hope Jesus might choose for you?  Here is the key to know that answer to that question.  To know what nickname Jesus would give to you, you must be like Simon Peter, and encounter Jesus.  You must spend time with him so that Jesus can share with you his view of your potential in life with him.

One of the most intimate ways we spend time with Jesus is in the sharing of his table with the bread and the cup.  Just before Jesus’ arrest, death, and burial, that is the time Jesus fulfilled the potential in his name as the Lamb of God, Jesus placed before his disciples, including Peter, two elements; bread and wine.  Jesus renamed the bread calling it his body.  Jesus renamed the wine calling it his blood.  The bread and wine were still just bread and wine but the potential that Jesus saw in them calling one his body and one his blood was life changing.  His body he would give over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross that in doing so all sin could be heaped upon Jesus; Peter’s sin, my sin, and your sin.  His blood he would shed that in doing so a new covenant, a new promise from God, could be sealed in place for all people.  For through the body and the blood of Jesus, that though we may die, we who believe in Jesus shall never perish but we will have eternal life with God.

Peter received that bread and that cup.  He did so to follow and show his love for Jesus.  Come let us receive what Peter received as we encounter Jesus at the table.