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10-11 - Salvation


During the last couple of weeks, we have spoken about baptism and we shared the Lord’s Supper.  Through these symbolic acts we see and experience the truth of the transformation, power, and goodness of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Today, I would like us to continue explore the truth about Jesus that lays behind the visible symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That truth is call salvation.  Now when we spoke about baptism, goodness that overcomes evil, and the Lord’s Supper, we had visible reminders to help understand what God was doing in the lives of believers.  In baptism, we heard Paul’s explanation that “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  We visualize this transformation each time someone is baptized.  To understand goodness and overcomes evil, we had the Lord’s Supper comprised of bits of bread and a cup of juice symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus who overcame the powers of the world and displayed the goodness of God through his resurrection from the dead.  Having something visible helps us understand a truth, particularly a spiritual truth. This one reason Jesus spoke so often in parables or in story form.  Stories help us form images of an encounter or scene which aids our understanding of the message being conveyed.  In all the years since Jesus’ taught, we still learn best from stories.  In fact, if anything, we have become more adept at learning and communicating through visual representations and story.  Today, I want to begin our time together by making use of our power to learn through images, through story, so that we could explore the truth of salvation.  And so, I want to begin with these images.

The images we saw of a person trapped in a hole rescued from circumstances that may or may not have been of his own making gives us a sense of salvation.  The person had no way and no hope of changing his circumstances.  The circumstances only changed when someone intervened on his behalf by climbing down into the pit to lift him out.  This is visual depiction of salvation.  Salvation is saving a person from the confinement and constraint of sin, distress, and hopelessness.  Salvation is planting a person in a spacious environment, granting freedom, and preservation from dangers.  Salvation is granting peace, joy, praise, and faith.  Salvation is granted by grace and mercy.  Salvation requires no meritorious work, no offering of money, and no acts of repetitious prayer.  Salvation only requires a desire to receive.

            The underlying Christian belief in salvation is that salvation comes from one source, God through Jesus.  In the Gospel of John, we learn, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).  Salvation comes from God and it is born out of love. God does not seek to condemn people but to save them.  Salvation is a God thing.  Let’s take a look at some of what Jesus taught about salvation and how he represented it.

            In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5, we read a story about Jesus encountering a man who was not in his right mind.  Mark said the man was possessed by an evil spirit. Neither we, nor the disciples with Jesus, saw or could see an evil spirit.  But Jesus disciples and we could see the circumstances of the man.  Mark wrote, “3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).  The man lived among the dead in a cemetery.  The people of his town, his neighbors, had once bound him in chains to control him, but now he was too strong for them.  Night and day, he lived alone, howling and screaming. He cut himself with sharp stones and rocks.  The man was hopeless and whatever possessed him, whatever controlled his life, would not let him go.  Many people today live in a trapped existence and cry out in pain. 

If we continued reading, we would find that Mark gave a detailed account of Jesus freeing this man from his possessor.  Once freed Mark wrote, “15 When they [the local townspeople] came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15a).  This is a picture of salvation.  The man who was controlled by influences other than God had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus and was now peace, joy, praise, and faith.  This man had been saved.

The Apostle Paul would later explain such a picture as this in a spiritual context this way, 21 At one time you were separated from God. You were his enemies in your minds, because the evil you did was against him. 22 But now he has made you his friends again. He did this by the death Christ suffered while he was in his body. He did it so that he could present you to himself as people who are holy, blameless, and without anything that would make you guilty before him” (Colossians 1:21-22 (ERV)).

From Paul’s description we understand that salvation is an end of being separated from God.  Salvation involves a new way of thinking and a new friendship with God.  The path to this friendship was created by God through Jesus death and we need only ask to come onto the path.

Jesus asked the man in the cemetery who he saved and restored to do only one thing in return. Jesus said to the man, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).  Jesus charge on the man was simple.  Tell others what God has done for you.

Now some church folk can make salvation overly complicated and legalistic.  I have heard people ask of others, “Do you think so and so is saved?  Do you think the church they went to was a believer’s church?”  I read this week that many people in the Roman Catholic Church may not be baptized.  Apparently, you are properly baptized if the priest or deacon says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” You are not baptized if the priest or deacon said, “We baptize you…”  Pronouns apparently matter.  The question is raised about the authenticity of another person’s salvation and whether the source of the salvation was sufficient and credible.  These are not new questions.

Sometimes friends and church folk are unwilling to believe someone’s testimony about what God has done.  Even in Jesus’ day, people raised questions about salvation.

            Let’s look at some excerpts from Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John.  One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking along, and Jesus encountered a man blind from birth.  The man was left to sit on the roadside and beg for money to sustain his own life.  Jesus “spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 ‘Go,’ he [Jesus] told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means ‘Sent’). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (John 9:6-7).  This is another illustration of salvation.  The man who was blind a birth, no hope of change, no hope of a full future, living a life constrained along the side of the road is now free to see all things and move about safely.  This healing came about by grace and mercy from Jesus.

            Now the man returned to his home.  “8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, ‘Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?’ 9 Some claimed that he was.  Others said, ‘No, he only looks like him.’ But he [the formerly blind man] himself insisted, ‘I am the man’” (John 9:8-9).  We see here that the neighbors of the man who was once blind were unwilling to accept the man’s testimony that he was healed.  The man’s neighbors could only see the man defined by his past.  But salvation means our past is behind us. We are no longer constrained by our past.  Now some people will not accept that truth about salvation and will try to drag people back to their former ways.  They will say, “I remember you when…don’t tell me now you have changed because you have God.  I am not buy it.”  This is essentially what the man’s neighbors were saying.  This cannot possibly be the man who was blind; this is only someone who looks like him.  But the man persisted saying, “I am that man.” The man gave his testimony of the work God did through Jesus.

            The neighbors then brought this man to the religious authorities for them to question the man.  The man repeated his story of being blind and now able to see because of what Jesus did for him.  “18 They [the religious leaders] still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 ‘Is this your son?’ they asked. ‘Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?’

20 ‘We know he is our son,’ the parents answered, ‘and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.’ 22 His parents said this [Ask him] because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:18-22).  The religious leaders refused to acknowledge Jesus was the source of salvation and that Jesus was working in the lives of one person, here a “nobody” who deserved no special grace from God.

            This scene teaches us that Jesus does not work through nations or people groups or race or any other sort of political affiliation or identity that people may chooses to assign to others.  Jesus works through a person; one at a time and offers salvation.

            In the Gospel of John, Jesus described the act of salvation using another illustration.  Jesus said, “3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus illustrated salvation as a second birth, a spiritual birth. Everyone here experienced a natural birth, that is we were born into this world.  Our life was derived from our parents.  Our birth did not come about by our own will or through our own provision.  In a similar manner, our spiritual birth will not come about through our own will or through our own provision.  Our spiritual birth will come about through the action of God through Jesus.  In that second birth, the source of our life is Christ living within us.  In this way, Christians do not believe they God will love them because they are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.  This is salvation.  We are no longer trapped in a hole.  Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7b).

            Salvation is our avenue to joy, peace, praise, and faith. Salvation is our path to an ongoing relationship with Jesus.  Salvation is forgiveness, mercy, and grace given to us simply because we asked for it. Salvation is God’s to give and ours to receive.  Be willing to ask and receive and embrace salvation.  Amen and Amen.

10-04 - Good 'N Evil

            There was a very popular Broadway musical entitled, “Jekyll and Hyde.”  One of the songs from that show was entitled, “Good ‘N Evil.” Included among the lyrics of that song were these words, “The battle between good and evil goes back to the start - Adam and Eve and the apple tore Eden apart!  The key thing about good 'n' evil - Each man has to choose!”  Because the Broadway musical is a dark story the song concludes with “Evil's for me - you can have good!”

            Good and evil are truly as old as time.  In the beginning of time, God had one and only one commandment.  The man and the woman were not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Everything around the man and woman, including they themselves, had been described by God as “good.”  All that existed was good, everywhere, through and through.  Evil, as the man and woman, might understand it, was not present. Well, we know the story.  The man and woman ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened.  “7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:7-8). Immediately, we see good has changed. The man and woman were ashamed of their nakedness and they were afraid of God.  As we read further, God found the man and woman. He asked the man if he ate the forbidden fruit.  The man replied, ““The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12).  The man admitted he ate the fruit but only because God put woman with him, and she is the one who gave it to him to eat.  Good has changed.  The man learned quickly to blame others and admit only what is provable. The woman learned from the man. She said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:11).

            How might we visualize the change from good alone to good and evil together?  One way might be to think about a hole.  Now a hole is not a real thing.  Right? You cannot go to Home Depot and buy a hole.  Kids cannot dress up for Halloween as a hole because holes are not real things even though they exist.  A hole exists as a missing part of something else.  We might have a pair of pants and observe, “I have a hole in my pants.”  A hole is the absence of what was once present. We know there is a hole present because we remember what those pants were like when we they were in tack.  In similar manner, we might think of evil as the absence, a hole, in what was once good.  We know that it is evil because we still retain memory of what it ought to have been like, that is good.  Confused? Think of it this way.  The only way we know a line is crooked is if we know what a straight line looks like.  The only way we know something is evil is because we retain a knowledge of what is good.

            So evil marred good.  Through sin a hole was punched into what was good but more in the way of punching a hole through a folded piece of cloth.  It was not just single hole, but a hole in many places. And life is still very much like a folded piece of cloth.  Every sin puts new holes into the cloth of goodness.

            Now God, who created good, has been unceasing in his desire that man and woman would seek good.  God sent Jesus, his own Son, to earth to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.  The good news was that in receiving Jesus our sins would be forgiven and we would be called away from evil and called to do good.  In that calling and accepting of Jesus, our tattered cloth representing our life before Christ is replaced with the seamless and complete cloth representing the sinless life of Christ.  This happens because Christ loves us and forgives us.  This is the good news God offers through Jesus.

            And even though we may accept Jesus in this life, we know, God knows, that we are still inclined to sin and still want to punch holes into what is good.  Goodness is still a memory imprinted upon humanity and like all memories we do not recall things perfectly.  The Apostle Paul expressed the sense of seeing things as they are this way. First, Paul said, “12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  In the present, we still see in part and thus are more than capable of acting in ways other than good.  The second thing Paul said was, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17).  The reality, that which is good through and through is found in Christ.

            Knowing that we do not always see things clearly, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to give instruction on how to live our lives continually moving in the direction of good.  From our New Testament reading today, Paul wrote, “9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Love here is not an emotion, it is an action.  Paul’s point was that we must love with sincerity. How do we display such love?  We begin this way, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Have you ever been the edge of very high point such as the edge of a roof or to the edge looking into a very deep canyon?  For many people who come to that edge, there is almost a magnetic-like pull over that edge.  Paul was saying do not go to edge of hole, to the edge of evil.  Step back from evil with the feeling hatred toward it. Instead, cling to the safety of goodness.  Do not let your hands go of what is good.  What is good?  The person of Jesus.  Hold tight to him.

            Paul then went into rapid succession of actions that represent love and goodness. “10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”  Be willing to serve other people because of love.  I read that we make friends for one of three reasons.  When we are young, we make friends based upon pleasure.  Our friends are those people who make us happy because we enjoy doing similar things.  Now when we no longer enjoy doing those things, our pleasure friends will disappear. As we age, we begin including friends in our life because we are useful to them and they are useful to us.  We have friends who are co-workers or neighbors. We might not even like these people that much, but we are friends because it is useful to get along.  When that usefulness ends, those friends will disappear. The third friend we make are virtue friends.  They are the people who become our friends in a deep and personal way.  Their friendship is true whether the moment is pleasurable or useful.  They want to do good for us simply because it is good for us.  These are rare friends indeed.  Paul was saying be that rare friend.  Devote yourself as a friend to others and be good to them simply because it is good for them.

            Paul continued.  “11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”  In expressing love and seeking goodness, we must remain vigilant to recognize that the strength to live our life comes from seeking God’s will and wisdom. We need to be excited about our faith and joyful about the hope we have because of the Lord.  Billy Joel’s song pokes fun at Christian behavior.  In the song, Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel wrote, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun.”  Paul’s point was nonsense!  Christians should be the people abounding in joy.  Paul wrote famously, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).  With great sincerity, we need to show others why we have hope and they can as well. And we need to pray for one another. I mean by name and specific.  It is a humbling experience when someone says to you, “It is so good to see you.  I have been praying for you.”  Prayer builds intimacy in our relationships.

            Paul said our love and goodness must be practical. He said, “13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”  We should be a giving people who express and show what goodness looks like and feels like by helping to solve needs of fellow Christians whether those needs are for food, clothing, shelter, companionship, or wisdom.  Quite frankly, these should be easy things for us to do and doing these things gets us in practice for the heavy lifting that love and goodness demand.

            Paul turned his attention to those difficult things.  Paul wrote, “14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  Now that is tough stuff.  Blessing those who are unkind is not natural.  I learned that lesson as a young child.  My brother, who is four years older than I am, used to say to me, “If you punch me, I will punch you back 10 times and harder.”  I, of course, would have to punch him and he in turn would have to punch me back.  There was not a lot blessing going on when my brother and I were wrestling and fighting. We wanted revenge.  Paul went after this point a little further in this passage.  Paul wrote, “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.”  “19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’” (Romans 12:17, 19-20) 

            Instead of revenge, we are to imitate Jesus, who when insulted and injured did not retaliate.  When Jesus suffered, he did not seek revenge.  This does not mean we have to be everyone’s punching bag.  It simply means we will seek ways for God to bless them and move them toward goodness.

            Paul then concluded with these words, “21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  God created us with free will.  If we are free to pursue good, then we are also free to pursue evil. Because we have free will evil is possible, but free will is also the only thing that makes possible love, goodness, and joy.  Paul said that we are faced with alternatives.  We can either be overcome by evil or we can overcome evil.  To be overcome by evil is to live a life making holes in the fabric of our life.  We can seek revenge for harm done to us but that makes as much sense as eliminating a small hole in our pants by making it bigger.  “You don’t see that small hole in my pants any more do you.”  No because you replaced it with a larger one.  We can seek to blame others for our problems and failing in life, but we know that will only result in us suffering alone in our failings.  Or we can overcome evil with good.  We can listen to God and follow the goodness revealed to us.  We can imitate Christ and be a source of hope.  We can practice the virtues of life and be the type of friend who never tires of doing what is good for our friends simply because it is good for them.  We can be part of God’s plan to overcome evil with good.  And by the way, in case you were wondering, there is no other plan available.

            As part of that plan we learn that on the evening that Jesus was betrayed and arrest, itself an act of evil, Jesus said to his disciples, ““As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:9-17).

            Jesus gave his friends what we now call the Lord’s Supper.  He gave them the bread and the cup to remind them that in the middle of evil seeking to destroy him, he had overcome evil.  Jesus gave his friends the bread and cup because it was good for them.  Through the bread and the cup his friends could hold in their hands the goodness of Jesus’ presence in their lives.  You and I are Jesus’ friend as well and he is offering us the bread and the cup because it is good for us.  It is good for us hold goodness in our hands.  Let us come together to remember what is good and be strengthened to overcome evil with good. Amen and Amen.

09-27 - Baptism

Today, I would like us to explore baptism. There are three reasons why I think we should talk about baptism.  The first reason is that we are Baptist and even the word “Baptist” appears in the name of our church.  Therefore, it stands to reason that baptism must be an important part of who we are. The second reason is that some people here have not been baptized and it would be important for you to understand baptism.  Finally, we should talk about baptism because some people here were baptized and we might only think about our baptism an event from our life and not essential element of our daily faith walk.

Let’s start with baptism as it is portrayed in the Bible.  While there are some historical accounts of ritual washings among the Jewish cultures and even pagan cultures, the concept of baptism was introduced by a man named John. This man, John, and baptism were so linked together that John became known as John the Baptizer or John the Baptist. For another day, we will look at John in detail, but for today, we will look at John as a matured man.  We find John introduced to us in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3.

“3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’  John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:1-6).

            Let’s take a look at a couple things about John and baptism.  John was a vocal preacher far removed from the mainstream of religious life.  Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life and John was in the wilderness, in a place called Bethany by the Jordan River.  In John’s day, it was a 20-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethany and people from all over came to hear what John had to say.  John had a simple message, “Repent!”  Today, when we hear someone say “Repent,” we might be inclined to picture a street preacher screaming at folks as they passed by his corner proclaiming the end is near. We are not sure what to make of such people but generally most of us are inclined to cross the street and avoid the drama.  “Repent,” properly understood means to “turn around because God is behind you and you are walking away from Him.”  Repent means to turn around and agree to walk with God in your life. John, from his wilderness outpost, called people from the Temple of Jerusalem and the synagogues of other cities pointing out that following rules and religious practices, participating in ritual sacrifices, and wearing the right religious clothing was not the same walking with God.  Religiously practicing traditions does not mean you are with God.  Listen to how John address the most respected members of the religious community:

“7 When he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he [John] said to them: “You brood of vipers [snakes]! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

John was blunt.  He was saying, do not talk the talk of faith and believe you are walking the walk of faith.  The talk of faith alone produces nothing.  The walk of faith produces fruit in keeping with repentance.  When we repent, that is turn and genuinely follow God, then we can produce fruit that reflects the goodness of God.  When we repent, we stop doing things that we know are not pleasing to God and we begin doing things consistent with God’s character of truthfulness, honesty, compassion, empathy, patience, kindness, and love.  We are concerned less with the idea that God is to be found in religious traditions, rules, and rituals and we become focused on becoming the person God wants us to be.

John said to his listeners that once you have repented, once you have come into agreement with God, be baptized; be immersed and submerge yourself under the water as an outward sign of your decision to repent.  Let that baptism signify to the witnesses of your decision and desire to turn fully toward God and let that moment remind you that you are in God’s presence.  And people were baptized, submerged under the waters of the River Jordan, by John for their decision to repent.

So we learn that baptism began as a decision to repent and water was used to symbolize the change of direction.  That is what John’s baptism meant.

Then, in that remote location, “13 Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  15 Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he [Jesus] went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he [John] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him [Jesus]. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:13-17).

            In the baptism of Jesus, we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit present.  In the baptism of Jesus, God was signaling that he would change John’s practice of baptism forever.  Baptism would no longer be simply about repentance, a turning toward God. Instead, baptism would come to represent a supernatural involvement of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit into the life of the person being baptized.  Baptism was still a human response to the presence and call upon an individual by God but now baptism would reflect the work of God’s Son and the involved of the Holy Spirit.  Like many of the things that happened with Jesus or Jesus taught and said about himself, the significance would not be fully understood during Jesus’ life on earth.  The same would be true of baptism.

            Let’s see what I mean by that.  After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, Jesus said to his disciples, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).  We see a couple of things here about baptism as Jesus would now define it.  First, baptism was for those who would follow him as a disciple; that is one who would seek to do what Jesus would do.  A decision is made for the individual to accept the forgiveness Jesus offers for all sin, past and future, and then as a confirmation of that acceptance, they are baptized.

            Now, I, like many of you, was baptized as an infant. I was only a few weeks old and I was baptized in a very religious ceremony.  I had no choice in the matter.  My baptism was done by my parents out of love for me, but I express no love for Christ, no repentance, no acceptance of Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, and no decision of discipleship.  I was a few weeks old and was simply present to get water splashed upon me.  Later, in my twenties, I thought again about baptism. The first and most overriding thought of that moment was, “When I get my act together and become a better person, then I will be baptized.  I cannot be baptized as I am now.  I must make myself better.”  This proved to be a fruitless exercise and one that is not found in the Bible.  Jesus did not say to his disciples, “When people get their act together, baptize them.”  He said tell them the good news that I have shared with you.  Invite them to follow me.  And when they do so, welcome them as your equal through baptism. I then came to realize that I needed to make the decision to follow Jesus.  I needed to accept Jesus’ offer, and I needed to be baptized as an outward sign of a spiritual change within me.  And so, as a man, I was immersed and submerged in the baptismal pool.  I wanted God and those who witnessed my baptism that a serious thing had happened to me.  That serious thing was explained by Jesus this way, I was baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  I was moved to repent and turn toward the Father.  I was moved to imitate the Son.  And God was moved to grant me the Holy Spirit to make it all possible in the moment and for the rest of my days. 

            The Apostle Paul was one person who fought against Jesus until he encountered Jesus and knew Jesus was the Son of God.  When Paul accepted Jesus was finally baptized, this is how he described the experience.  “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:4-5). Paul’s point was that baptism is the symbolic act of the death of our old life, that is our life without Jesus. That old life is then buried under the baptismal waters and we arise from the waters and draw in the breath of new life.  In that new life we are united forever with Jesus including joining him in his resurrection.  The promise is that Jesus is present with us in our daily living and that we will be united with him even in our death.  For Paul continued, “38 For I am convinced that 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” (Romans 8:38-39).  Baptism is a mutual expression of love.  Baptism is offered by Jesus as his expression and promise of love and it is our clearest way of showing our love toward him.

            We are a Baptist church because we believe that baptism is a personal decision that each person must make for themselves.  We do not believe Mom, Dad, or God parents can make a faith decision for the children under their care.  We, you and I, need to make that pivotal decision in and for our life.  Perhaps you have been waiting for the perfect moment to be baptized.  Do not wait. Come and follow Jesus and be baptized. Choosing to be baptized is likely the most significant act you can take in your Christian walk for the reasons I have mentioned and for these next thoughts.

            We can make use of our baptism daily by remembering three simple words, “I am baptized.”  How can those three words offer us daily strength.  Here is how.  When I think no one cares about me or my difficulties, I can say, “I am baptized.” When sadness overwhelms me, I can say, “I am baptized.”  In the long hours of the day, I can say, “I am baptized.”  When we are uncertain of our next step in life, we can say, “I am baptized.”  And because “I am baptized,” Christ Jesus lives within me now and forever. Because “I am baptized,” my sins are forgiven.  Because “I am baptized,” I have a family with many members.  Because “I am baptized,” God will share with me wisdom.  Because “I am baptized,” the Holy Spirit will lead me in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).  Because “I am baptized,” the Lord will call me to meditate on things that are true, things that are noble, things that are just, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  Because “I am baptized,” my life no longer belongs to the world, my life belongs to God and I know I am his child.

            “I am baptized” is the source of my spiritual healing.  Christian writer, C. S. Lewis wrote, “As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body.  Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not.  A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself.  In the same way a Christian is not a man or woman who never goes wrong, but a man or woman who is enable to repent and pick themselves up and begin over again after each stumble – because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him or her all the time.”

            I am baptized therefore, Christ is within me renewing my life, repairing the spiritual cuts and scrapes from this world made of hard corners and sharp edges.  For those who have chosen baptism and been baptized, remember hold close each day the words, “I am baptized.”  For those who have not yet chosen baptism, I invite you to be baptized in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Make the choice to say, “I am baptized.”  Amen and Amen.

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.

09-06 - Lord;s Supper

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.