Category: Weekly Sermon

A History Changing Letter

Message Delivered on June 23, 2013
Galatians 3:23-29

For those of you who turn your televisions to the history channel from time to time, you will have no problem identifying with Paul’s letter to Christians at Galatia.  We can view this letter as a snippet of time captured in succinct words that convey the relevance of the gospel to Christians in any age.

Once upon a time, people wrote letters; not text messages, e-mails, or tweets, but epistles.  Pens were actually put to paper (papyrus, vellum, parchment and other early forms of paper).  These letters changed history in ways big and small.

It was a letter that connected Annie Oakley to the President of the United States, William McKinley.  The famous sharpshooter amazed crowds by shooting holes in playing cards tossed into the air, so she thought she could be of service to her country.   She offered her services in the Spanish American War, and those of fifty other female sharpshooters to be at the disposal of the President.  The women were prepared to furnish their own arms and ammunition, so as not to generate expense to the government.  Mr. McKinley never responded, but that letter helped open the door for women in military service.

In 1956, Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote a letter to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, in which he criticized Fleming for putting a lady’s gun, a 25 caliber Beretta in Bond’s hand.  Fleming responded by rearming Bond with a Walther PPK and took on Boothroyd as an arms advisor, and created a new character named Major Boothroyd, known to fans as “Q.”

As pioneers moved from Peoria, Illinois and settled in the Arizona Territory, some working on the Arizona Canal Project, Jennie Mann wrote about starting a Presbyterian Sunday School to bring Christian education to the settlers’ children and children in this region.  She chronicled her experiences and we have included them in the history of our church, established in 1892.

The apostle Paul changed history by arguing that we are made right with God through the faith of Jesus, not the religious law diligently followed by children of Abraham, the children of the Covenant who adhered to the law outlined in the Jewish book of faith, the Torah.  In writing to Greek speaking converts to Christianity, Paul was addressing the concerns of the faith community, who wondered if they needed to add Jewish religious practices to their new faith in Jesus.

As radical as Paul’s ideas were to his listeners, I do not think they would have been ready for the e-mail I received this week from Lester Dray, which included the message, “Do you think Peoria Presbyterian Church is ready for this?”
       PREACHER: “Praise the Lord!”
     
       CONGREGATION: “Hallelujah!”

       (T-i-m-e is allowed for this to be accomplished).

       PREACHER: “Now, let us pray, committing this week into God’s hands.
                         Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter, and Facebook, and chat
                         with God.”

       S-i-l-e-n-c-e (except for gadgets running).

       PREACHER: As we take our Sunday tithes and offerings, please have
                         your credit and debit cards ready. You can log on to the
                        church wi-fi using the password ‘Lord909887’.  The
                         ushers will also circulate mobile card swipe machines
                         among the worshipers. Those who prefer to make
                         electronic fund transfers are directed to computers and
                         laptops at the rear of the church. Those who prefer to use
                         iPads can open them now. Those who prefer telephone
                         banking, take out your cell phones to transfer your
                         contributions to the church account.”

                        The holy atmosphere of the Church becomes truly
                         electrified all ALL the smart phones, iPads, PCs, and
                    laptops beep, flicker, and leap into action for the contribution.

              Closing Announcements:
              This week’s ministry cell meetings for various age groups will be
               held on the Facebook group pages where the usual group chat
               ting takes place. Please log in and don’t miss out. Thursday’s
               Bible study will be held live on Skype at 1900hrs GMT. Please
               don’t miss out.
               You can follow your Preacher on Twitter this weekend for
               counseling and prayers.

               Thank you for coming. God bless you—and have a nice day.

My response to all of this to Lester was, “I want to believe that the Lord of our lives is more personal and relational.”  Lester’s answer to me was, “I agree.”

After receiving Paul’s letter, the Galatian Christians realized that there was “no longer Jew or Greek—slave or free…male and female. Instead, all were one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

History was shaped in small ways for President McKinley, Ian Fleming, and families of pioneers from Peoria, Illinois, but it was totally transformed by Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Before Paul wrote his interpretation of the gospel, people believed and felt imprisoned and guarded under the religious laws, which restrained and protected them from hurting themselves and others.  The law was viewed as a disciplinarian.  The disciplinarian, paidagogos, from which our word pedagogy is derived, was a slave who supervised and guarded children, taking them to school and back, and overseeing their behavior, a “nanny” by today’s standard.  The protective custody was temporary because the children grew up and their services were not needed any longer.  Paul says they were guarded under the law until faith would be revealed; faith in Jesus Christ.  He suggests that there were two historical ages: the age of the law and the age of faith.  People had faith in Almighty God for hundreds of years but history changed when Christ faithfully suffered death and rose to new life.  Paul spoke of the law as a prison and prison guard, a disciplinarian (the pedagogue).  Paul insisted that after Christ came we were justified by faith and no longer needed a “nanny.”  Once Christ died and rose from the tomb, no human action is required except that we put our complete trust in Jesus Christ.  In Galatians 2:20 Paul said, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Personal faith.  Christ’s faith.  Together they form the Christian faith.  We no longer live in a nanny state, subject to a disciplinarian.  Paul believing that we are justified by faith and as followers of Christ, are now children of God.  Until Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians, “Children of God’ was a term reserved for God’s chosen people, the Jews, and could be applied to the first Jewish followers of Jesus.  These disciples continued to practice circumcision and to follow many of the religious Old Testament Laws.

Paul continues to emphasize that “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v.26).  The circumcised and uncircumcised, keepers of the law as well as those who knew nothing of the law.  Jews as well as Greeks–all are children of God through faith.  For Christians today, this letter speaks of the power of faith to create a new family called “Children of God.”  It does not matter what your ethnic or religious background might be or what language you speak.  It does not matter what level education you have attained or if you have a job or spouse or money in the bank.  What matters is faith in Christ. That is what makes us Children of God.

Paul gives us a new identity: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v.27). When we clothe ourselves with Christ, we take on his characteristics and do our best to present him to the world.  This means showing his grace and his love, speaking the truth, and serving others with generosity and compassion.  V.28 is a political and social statement that continues to be recognized as such today.  In v.29, Paul is following through from his argument in v.16, “The promises were made to Abraham and his offspring, referring to one, which is Christ.  For the Galatians to be the offspring of Abraham is for them to be co-heirs with Christ and for Paul, this is the key point.  If the Galatians are upholding Abraham as a paragon of virtue, Paul is at pains to lead them to the next step of recognizing that Abraham’s virtue was not a product of the law but a product of faith.  I see this as the hinge pin, the key in human history that can unite us with our Muslim brothers and sisters who profess to be faithful children of Abraham.  It is our ministry as disciples of Jesus to proclaim that faith in Jesus Christ is the means by which all people are able to become heirs of the promises.  We have many words to share and letters to write.  I do not believe tweets can convey the “hands-on”, relational love of Jesus for all people.  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Joy in Jesus

Message Delivered on May 12, 2013

In 1987, I visited the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated.  In Greece there are “documented” sites and “traditional” sites.  As I looked at the hillside where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated, I could still see the iron rings where the shackles on Paul and Silas’ feet had been attached.  I could imagine the intense heat of the jail by day and the penetrating cold after the sun had set.  The two missionaries had been flogged before being imprisoned and their feet secured in stocks for good measure.  It was a grim bit of news recorded in Acts but at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God.  I doubt their choruses were happy tunes; after all, jails were designed to make their residents unhappy in those days.  Paul and Silas were not wailing tunes of despair, rather they remained surprisingly calm throughout the ordeal.

I cannot imagine what Paul and Silas were feeling in this dungeon, but as Christians their hope in God remained paramount.  Recall the days of your childhood and learning the tune, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…stomp your feet…nod your head.”  There were sixty kids in the primary department of my Sunday school and after a rousing chorus of this song (I now call Christian calisthenics), even the usual “antsy-pantsy” students had an opportunity to expend energy, calm down and be receptive to the morning Bible lesson.  At a youth rally one of the speakers emphasized that because the kids were Christians and had the good news of the gospel, they should be happier than other people and smiling all the time.  One of the kids responded, “O great, now I have something new to feel guilty about; I am a Christian and I do not feel happy every minute!”

When Charles Schultz died, the next day the Peanuts cartoon pictured the faces of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the gang resting on a fence with tears rolling down their cheeks.  The master cartoonist, who had brought joy to many, was gone.  In one of Schultz’s early comic strips, Lucy was acting philosophical and asked Charlie Brown, “Why do you think we are put on earth?”  After pondering this profundity, Charlie replied “To make others happy.”  Not a bad answer from the round-headed kid.  Lucy was momentarily happy, but then a scowl darkened her brow, “I don’t think I’m making anyone happy, but of course, nobody’s making me very happy either.”  In the final cell of the strip, Lucy screams out in big, capital letters: “SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB!”

The notion that Christians should be happy all the time is one that just won’t go away.  Pop-gospel writer, Gary Paxton, penned: “If You’re Happy, Notify Your Face.”  I learned in anatomy/physiology in college that it takes more muscles in the human face to frown than it does to smile.  On varying occasions our faces project pain, anger and joy.  Most of us find it impossible to be happy all the time.  Life is too complicated for that.

Scripture tells us a lot about joy in the lives of those who try to serve God and follow Jesus.  Joy in the biblical sense is something different from happiness, even though the two often coincide.  The Bible does not command us to feel joy or to notify our faces or any other parts of our body to reflect joy.  Joy is what life looks like when we really trust God. 

Captivity and liberation are themes that run through the biblical account of Paul and Silas in jail.  The scene is set when a slave girl, possessed by a spirit, is liberated by Paul.  The slave girl’s owners are displeased because they have lost the spectacle that made them money.  Paul and Silas are consequently brought before magistrates who order them to be flogged and thrown into prison.  Divine intervention frees them from the jail by an earthquake.  Having every opportunity to escape, Paul and Silas call out to the jailer and save him from committing suicide because he assumes the prisoners have escaped during his watch (The death penalty was issued to Roman guards failing to carry out an assignment).  The jailer leads Paul and Silas to safety.  The jailer is further liberated by Paul and Silas when they teach him and his family about salvation, to be set free from sin by belief in the Lord Jesus.  The jailer and his entire family are baptized into the body of Christ.  God’s liberating activity transforms the lives of the faithful.  The incarceration of Paul and Silas is a reminder that God’s faithful will never face adversity alone.  Even as Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in the midst of their imprisonment, Paul and Silas demonstrated how they were spiritually liberated by God, even before they were physically freed by God through the earthquake.

Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and servants of God, but they were accused of being Jews and following customs that were unlawful for Romans.  They had professed to be servants of the MOST HIGH GOD, rather than citizens loyal to the emperor.  Another common theme throughout this passage is that God is proclaimed.  The power of God and merely mentioning the name of Jesus chases away the spirit from the slave girl.  The way of salvation is made clear.   The God with the real power to control the cosmos shines forth and this God has provided the only means of salvation for all who are willing to believe.

The Bible does not tell us what to feel, and we have no Christian obligation to demonstrate joy.  But when we are in the darkness and trusting God, joy is simply a description of what is happening in our inner beings.  I shared childlike joy when I sang “I Love to Tell the Story of unseen things above; of Jesus and his glory; of Jesus and his love” in Sunday school.  As I grew in faith and trust in Jesus, my joy became, “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.  I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.”  As mothers and fathers, care-givers of young and old, may we share the joy that comes from knowing and trusting Jesus as our Savior, the lesson Paul and Silas have given to us for today.  Amen.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Heaven is for Real

Message Delivered on May 5, 2013
John 14:23-29; Revelation 21:1-4, 10, 22-22:5
Upon viewing my liturgical calendar for this coming week, I noted that Ascension Day, the day that Jesus returned to the Father in heaven after his resurrection, will be remembered on Thursday.  I can only imagine the mixed feelings of joy and grief as the beloved Savior prepared to leave his disciples.  I know the mixed feelings I have every time I officiate at celebrations of life, remembering friends and trusting God to care for them in their new life in heaven.  Jesus’ words of comfort to his friends before leaving are consoling and help us to look forward to our new life with God forever, but how do we deal with grief caused by losses? Today’s passages give us some insight to God’s words for us in difficult times.

In the Old Testament the Israelites dealt with loss and disappointment by remembering the creation account. It was in the Garden of Eden that sin was first introduced and people have been seeking to reverse its damage for eons. Christ came to offer forgiveness, hope, and the promise of new life; a new beginning with God forever. In the times when we are feeling lost and alone, God promises to be with us. “I am making all things new.”

God had promised the Israelites after the Babylonian captivity to bring them home to the land of their ancestral birth, to restore the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the ruined temple and to re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation. This morning’s text in Revelation speaks of the eternal realm after the great resurrection as both a new genesis (re-creation) and a New Jerusalem (new world). Creation is renewed not by destroying the old and starting over but by transforming the old into something different, better and transcendent. Creation’s renewal is modeled after the transformation and resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15:35-53). In the same way that sinners become a new creation because the old has passed away and the new has come, the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. They have discontinued in their current condition because God is restructuring the old created order into a new state of glory: creation changes without losing its former identity and becomes “a new heaven and a new earth.” God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we. Because God plans on transforming the old created order, the church should be faithful stewards of the planet and not exploit its resources. God’s city, the New Jerusalem, is an epiphany (a light show) revealing three major movements: 1. the initial descent of the city, 2. the measurements and the materials of the city, and 3. the internal content and landscape of the city of God, heaven.

In John’s gospel for today, believers are called to keep the word. In knowing Jesus, God’s presence impacts peace and love and builds a home for those who abide in God’s word. As Jesus prepares to go to the Father, He promises to send the Holy Spirit in his absence to continue in the instruction of Jesus’ words. The revelation of God in Christ will go on.

Last year we read Heaven is for Real in which a young boy of three died in surgery, came back to life, and gradually related to his parents his account of being with God in heaven. Revelation 21:3-4 is often included as one of the “words of comfort” I use at a celebration of life to depict the Kingdom of Heaven we look forward to seeing in God’s glory. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be there with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Belief in an after-life is comforting.

Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurobiologist, trained at Harvard University as a neurosurgeon. He was a religious skeptic, but on November 10, 2008, he woke up with a splitting headache that devolved into seizures. An ambulance took him to the same hospital where he worked. He was shrieking, “Help!” and he learned that E.Coli had attacked his brain in a rare form of bacterial meningitis. In a coma, his colleagues felt that he had very little chance of survival. If he lived, he would be severely brain damaged.

Amazingly, Dr. Alexander made a complete recovery; a medical miracle. An afterlife experience during the coma turned a skeptic into a faithful Episcopalian. He penned Proof of Heaven, making the New York Times Best Sellers List for non-fiction after only four weeks. He recalls the medical miracle and shocking after-life experience of heaven he had while in his coma. “While brain dead, he described himself as a hyper-aware speck of consciousness in the midst of darkness, but a visible darkness—like being submerged in mud but also being able to see through it.” He was plunged from that place by a spinning orb of white light that emitted a beautiful melody. The light drew him in and then opened like a portal into an unending valley—“Below me was countryside: green, lush and earthlike. It was earth but at the same time, it was not.” A celestial being spoke to him without using words. He sensed three messages about that eternal place: 1. “you are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” 2. “you have nothing to fear.” and 3. “there is nothing you can do wrong [that cannot be made right].” These images and words have some overlap with scriptural notions of heaven in Revelation. Alexander had no knowledge of this text or any need for it. Heaven had been dismissed as religious nonsense. He described his near death experience as subconscious hallucinations created by the neo cortex of the brain, based on memories of what the person had previously heard or imagined about afterlife. The E.Coli infection was spread across the entire outermost layer of the brain responsible for all of higher functioning. Brain scans during the coma showed zero activity in the areas that could access memories, create dreams, or imagine visual and audio sensations. Alexander’s vision of heaven could not have happened within his physical brain. He was convinced there is a heaven and a loving, personal God.

Revelation 21 is not a vision of angels and harps, it is a vision of the arrival of the New Heaven: 1500 miles long, wide and tall (Revelation 21:16), great perimeter walls made of jasper (verses 12, 18), foundations crusted with precious jewels (verses 19-20), and city and streets made of pure gold (verses 18, 21). The wonder of the city is not what it is made of—but what it represents: 1. No temple in this city. There is no need because Jesus is the mediator of forgiveness and relationship with God, not a building. 2. The Heavenly City represents the fullness of human purpose. In Genesis the garden was created and perfect. Revelation 21 is the true fulfillment of Genesis 1. God is pleased and makes this city in the middle of heaven—his throne. The glory of all civilizations flows into the city as the worship of God (Revelation 21:6).

The implication of how we view our work is huge because God is honoring human work. The proof of heaven is in the work of our hands. Our “city-building” includes all work done in the Genesis mandate to create and cultivate; this fulfills God’s design for humanity. It literally brings heaven to Earth. Of all the images of heaven that God could send to John, he chose a city: Heaven as gritty and earthy and tangible. Alexander’s afterlife experience/vision was his proof of heaven and we can all look for our own proofs of heaven today.

We long for a peaceful world without pain. It is in our sense of satisfaction that comes through holiness—of overcoming the momentary satisfaction of sinful choices that we can find peace. It is in the goodness of the everyday work of our hands—work that fulfills our purpose now and builds a heaven that will come. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) in the present tense, and our lives today can be the proof of heaven as we live, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord God is our guiding light at all times and in all places. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon