Year A — The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Commentary for May 22, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Acts 7:55-60
The contrast between Stephen — “the first Christian martyr” (if you don’t count Jesus)– and Saul is striking. Stephen is older, more experienced; Saul is a “young man.” Stephen is filled with the Spirit, while Saul is filled with rage and zeal for what he thought was right, like everyone else in the crowd that day. Stephen gets a straight-shot view through to heaven, where he can see Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Saul, of course, has yet to gain his spiritual eyes. He is blind to these details, even as he will become blind on the road to Damascus in just a little while.


Not to be missed are the visual and vocal cues connecting Stephen’s faith in God to that of Christ at his own execution. Stephen commits his spirit to Christ, as Christ had done in commending his spirit to God. Amazingly, Stephen prays– as did Jesus on the cross– a form of the “Father forgive them” prayer.


What kind of example do we have here from this outstanding deacon of the church, as well as from Christ himself? “Do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed. We don’t usually want to let those who have sinned against us off that easily. Like the bumper sticker says, “I don’t get mad — I just get even!”


Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
This psalm text has connections both to the experience of Stephen (see above) and of Christ. Verse 5 is a poignant prayer: “Into your hand I commit my spirit….” Notice that the rest of the verse indicates a future that can already be claimed as present: “…you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”


Perhaps a part of living with the kind of vivid faith exemplified by Stephen and Jesus is the realization that God’s promises for the future actually reach to our present reality. As the psalmist says, “My times [past, present, and future] are in your hand….” 


1 Peter 2:2-10
Babies are sweet, aren’t they? Bring a newborn baby into any room, and there will be “coos” and “aahs” issued from every direction. We just love to hold them, cuddle them, smell them, and generally “make do” over the little ones!


But babies are a mess, too; let them get hungry, or wet, or dirty and the object of our affections is no longer quite so appealing. We’re soon looking for the momma or the daddy in order to hand them off. Nobody likes dealing with an upset baby!


All the more reason to see Peter’s analogy as an apt description of the necessity of nurturing new Christians in the faith. It is an exciting prospect to receive young members of the faith into our churches, through confirmation or “profession of faith.” We love to “coo and aah” over such events, and everybody in the congregation feels a bit like proud parents. But, then the messy work of growing these young converts sets in.


We might well want to put them aside — perhaps give them to the pastor or the Christian Ed person — or, better yet, the “youth director” — until their spiritual maturity has been accomplished. But, Peter says, it takes the hard work of building one stone at a time in order to see God’s house raised to fullness. “Babes in Christ” don’t automatically turn into “royal priests” overnight or automatically.


It takes a church — the whole church — to raise a Christian in his or her faith. 


John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Easy for you to say, Jesus!

We have plenty of trouble all around us, everyday, don’t we? It’s pretty hard for us to see our way through, sometimes, when it seems the effluvia of life just keeps piling higher and higher. The disciples said as much on this day when Jesus sought to bestow on them a bit of the heavenly vision.

Jesus: “I am going to prepare a place for you…and you know the way to that place.”
Thomas: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?”
Philip: “Yeah, Jesus, just show us the Father, then we’ll be satisfied.”

Oh, those crazy disciples — always asking Jesus for a little more of this and a bit more of that. As if Jesus himself might not be able to handle it and ought to just go ahead and call God in!

Of course, as Christ’s followers, all we ultimately get is him — just Jesus. “I am the Way…” he replied to Thomas. “You walk with me and follow me, and you’re going to end up just where you need to go” — that kind of thing. No other roadmaps or directional signs.

I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).

So — let’s put some feet to it and keep following Jesus!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
My least favorite part of family road trips was when the boys got into the “Why?” question game.  It is the most irritating game on earth.  You’re not familiar with it?  It’s really simple and really funny.  Well, it’s really funny if you’re a seven or eight year old boy. 
All you do is ask your unsuspecting and distracted parent a simple question.  Then no matter what the parent says, you respond with “Why?”  “When are we stopping for lunch?”  “In about an hour.”  “Why?” “Because we’ll be in Morganton and can go to MacDonald’s” “Why?” “Because everybody can get something they like at McDonalds” “Why?”And so on. 
The game for the kids is to see how long it takes the parent to figure out what’s going on.  The game for the parent is see how long they can maintain their carefully arrived at philosophical position opposing corporal punishment.
As much as it used to irritate me on long road trips, I think “Why?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. Didn’t someone say that the “unexamined life is not worth living?”
To go through life just doing what’s expected, what’s normal, what everyone in our community or job or country, has always done without bothering to ask the why questions is a sad and ultimately unfulfilling way to live..
Peter writes to the early Christians that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  Okay that’s great, that’s wonderful, that’s exciting, that’s really Good News.
But here’s the question, “Why?”  Why were they chosen?  Why did God pick them, us, to be holy and royal and God’s own?  Why?  What have we done to deserve this?
Well nothing actually.  Nothing whatsoever. It’s all God.  It’s all grace. 
In his book, What’s so amazing about Grace, Phillip Yancy says that back in the 1950s a group of religion professors met in Oxford, England for a conference on comparative religions.
One day, as some of them sat around a table in the Commons room drinking tea grappling with the question, ‘Is there one belief unique to the Christian faith?’
C.S. Lewis wandered into the room
“What’s going on?” he asked.  Someone told him that his colleagues were discussing the question, “Is there one belief unique to Christianity?”
Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy; it’s grace.”
Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies, tells about how she found herself broke, drunk, bulimic, depressed, and addicted to drugs.  She said, “I could no longer imagine how God could love me.”  Desperate, she set an appointment with an Episcopal priest.  She told him, “I’m so messed up that I don’t think God can love me.”  The priest replied, “Gad has to love you.  That’s God’s job.”
Why were we chosen, royal, holy?  Because of the pure, unbridled, unadulterated, unmitigated, unreasoned love of God.  Why?  Because God has to love us; has to choose us.  That is God’s job; that is who God is.
And a voice from the backseat says, “Why?”  Not why as in, “Why has God loved us, chosen us, made us royal and holy? but why as in “Why has God called us together, what are we chosen for, what is our purpose, our reason for being?”
Peter tells us that God has chosen us “so that (we) may proclaim the mighty acts of (the one) who has called (us) out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.”
We are proclaimers, witnesses, testifiers, tellers of truth, speechifiers of the spirit, religious raconteurs.
Whether we stand in a pulpit or stand by our mailbox; whether we write out lesson plans for the classroom or shoot from the hip in the grocery aisle; whether we volunteer for a weeklong mission trip in Haiti or mow the neighbor’s grass and take out his garbage when he’s in the hospital; we are called to show to the world that God’s mighty acts of love have touched and changed our lives.
And in so doing, we will be the agents, no, the angels, through whom God touches and changes the lives of those around us.
A few years ago a tornado tore through Lafayette TN.  “The next day a group of men from a church in Nashville showed up with chain-saws and pickup trucks.  They spent the next three days cutting up fallen trees and hauling the debris away.  A newspaper reporter interviewed one of the men with the chainsaws. . . When the reporter asked (one of the blue-collar men) why he and his friends came to help, he said, “We want to be god with skin on.” (What’s the Least I can Believe and Call Myself a Christian Dr. Martin Thielen)
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
Why? Because the world is full of broken and lonely people who sit in darkness with broken and lonely lives and they need to be touched with the mighty acts of God. 
And we have been called to love them and touch them and care for them in the name of god.
Amen and amen.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Bonus Sermon (Just for Fun)
By the Rev. Dr. John P. Fairless
(aka Bubba II)
John 14:1-14

It was Professor Harold Hill, in a hit Broadway musical, who came to the small town of River City, Iowa and famously stated, “Folks, we’ve got trouble, right here in River City…with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for pool!”
The Music Man got’em all shook up, inciting mass concern among the parents of River City that their young boys were being seduced into a world of sin and vice by the new pool table in town. The answer was, of course for all those concerned to cough up enough cash in order to finance a town marching band – complete with horns, uniforms, and…of course… a leader!
The “Professor,” unfortunately, was nothing but a con man and planned to make off with the money in the middle of the night…if not for the fair charms of local librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo. Ah, the things we do for love!
It all worked out in the end for Robert Preston and Shirley Jones in the movie version – with 76 trombones to lead the big parade into happiness!
Harold Hill was right about one thing…
  1. Trouble — with a capital T— is part of our lives.
  • Jesus, speaking to his disciples, begins by saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
  • We may think, “That’s easy for you to say, Jesus!”
  • We have all sorts of worries pressing on us – jobs, families, illnesses, relationships…
  • What does Jesus mean, we shouldn’t be “troubled?”
Of course, as is most often the case, Jesus was trying to get his disciples – and that means us – to see deeper than the surface of things. He called them to remember that ultimately, their faith was placed in God and that God had always proven faithful to them in the past.
Now, as the very presence of God in their midst, they could trust him, as well…in fact, they could trust him for their present as well as for their future.
Verses 2-4 have become one of the Bible’s most precious promises for God’s people; we draw much comfort from knowing that…
  1. Jesus has promised to be with us both now and forever.
    • Since we started telling this story of Jesus at the time of his birth, we have emphasized his character as “Emmanuel” – God with us.
    • There is no circumstance in our lives, no situation we ever find ourselves in, that God is not there.
    • Jesus himself said, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age.”
    • The “end of the age” is the defining limit of this world – whether we approach that limit through death, or whether we are alive on the day that Jesus comes again to bring time on this earth to a close.
    • As long as this life lasts, Jesus is with us
    • But in this discussion, Jesus told the disciples, “But I’m not just with you now…I’m making plans with God to be with you forever. I am going to prepare a place for you…”
    • And what a place it will be!
    • I love the old gospel song, “I”ve Got a Mansion, Just Over the Hilltop”
…in that bright land where we’ll never grow old;
and some day yonder, we will never more wander
but walk the streets that are purest gold.”
Well, amen, Brother Ben! We could just stop and talk and rejoice and wonder about heaven for a little while this morning, couldn’t’ we? To tell you the truth, we don’t really know what heaven will be like…but from every description we have in the Bible, it is going to be BEYOND GREAT!
But bless those disciples and their little hearts…they didn’t quite get it on this day when Jesus tried to tell them all these things. They were a little confused…and they wanted a little more explanation and confirmation…
  1. We always want just a little more from Jesus, don’t we?
    • Thomas – remember, he’s the one who got “frozen in his faith” later, after the crucifixion and resurrection – Thomas is always very honest and forthright
    • He says, “But we don’t know the way Jesus! We don’t know this place you say you are going!”
    • And Philip, another disciple, chimes in: “Yeah…and besides, as much as we like you, Jesus, we really wish you would just show us God. If we could see HIM, then we’d know everything was going to be okay!”
    • These boys hadn’t learned much, had they? They’d already forgotten the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration – Jesus, Moses and Elijah having a little chat, Peter scurrying about to build three altars to worship all three men, and the thunderous voice of God saying, “This is my Son – worship HIM!”
    • Like the disciples, we all have to be reminded some times: all you get is Jesus.
    • Our faith is placed in Christ – and Christ alone.
    • We don’t get any other evidence, we don’t get any other option or choice.
    • We don’t get any other Savior – and we don’t need one!
    • I am the way…,” Jesus said to Thomas that day. “You believe in God…you can believe in me.”
That’s what it all boils down to for us, folks; belief – hope – trust– FAITH.
So, just how is it that we “believe” in Jesus and follow him to this wonderful place with God that he told us about?
The answer is right there in the passage…but especially in v. 12: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these….”
  1. Here’s the truth: you live the Jesus life by walking in the Jesus way.
    • We are called to follow Jesus…that’s what it means to be a disciple.
    • If am going to follow a guide who has promised to take me somewhere, it means that I need to listen to what he says, walk the same way that he walks, and do the same things that he does.
    • It wouldn’t make much sense for me to pay a guide to take me to the best fishing hole or the top hunting ground and then to say, “Well, thanks for the advice, but I believe I”ll just try it my way!”
    • In the spiritual life – which really can’t be separated from our physical lives or our emotional lives or our intellectual lives – we are following Jesus. He is not only our Savior – he is our guide.
    • So…we listen to what he says…we walk the way that he walks…we do the things that he does.
    • And that’s how we end up where we need to go…with Jesus!
I like the way that Eugene Peterson puts it in The Way of Jesus:
“To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always [derived from] from Jesus…..
To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.” (p. 22).
I want to ask each of us to answer that basic question here today: am I living the life of Jesus by walking in the way of Jesus?
Am I living a life that is true?
Am I following the one whom I have professed as Savior and Lord?
If not…then what are you waiting for? Today is a good day to put some feet into trusting God and following Christ.

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