Friday, April 22, 2016

Love - John 13:31-35

John 13:31-35. 

31 When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In the film, 42, which is the story about Jackie Robinson, the baseball executive, Branch Rickey, is played by Harrison Ford.  Rickey was the man who spear headed the effort to bring an end to racially segregated baseball and in the film he gives different reasons as to why he makes that effort.  In one scene he makes the observation that his faith is why he is doing this because the Bible tells us eight times to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I’m not sure that Rickey is right about that.  In one way or another, that command to love others shows up time and time again.  In the New Testament alone, one source says it shows up 11 times, and multiple times in the Old Testament.

Way back in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, we are told (19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is the key to the Christian faith.

There is a tradition in the history of the church that the Apostle John, when he was an old man living in Ephesus, had to be carried to the church in the arms of the younger Christians.  Once at the church worship, John was often asked to preach.

I mean think about it – here is John, the last living Apostle.  Here is a man who walked with Christ, ate with him, saw the crucifixion, was there for the Resurrection.  Of course people wanted him to preach.

John could have said something like, “Well you know I remember one day Jesus and I were walking along the beach and he told me this parable that nobody ever wrote in the Gospels, so I’ll tell it to you now.

Or John might have said, “Besides the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also taught these other prayers, let me share them with you.”

Or John might have said, “Rabbi Jesus, preacher Peter and I walked into a tavern one day and Jesus turned to us and said, “You know, that reminds me of a joke.”  How cool would that have been if John had told some joke, parable or prayer that Jesus had spoken?

But John never did that.  Whenever he was asked to preach, it was always the same old sermon, word for word the same, without change:

“Little Children, love one another.”
As the tradition goes, after a time, the younger Christians became tired of always hearing the same words, asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"

"It is the Lord's command," was his reply. "And if this alone be done, it is enough!"

Now this is a story that comes from St Jerome, one of the early church fathers, but whether it is true or not, what is clear is that Christians are to love others.

Why do we love others?  Because first of all Christ commanded it.  Here in the New Testament lesson for this morning in what amounts to a farewell address, Jesus is telling his disciples that they must obey a new commandment: "Love one another.”

Love is active and real and difficult.  Douglas John Hall of Canada's McGill University notes that the law of Christ makes tolerance not enough:  "It may be good enough, legally and politically, but it is not good enough for the one who did not say, 'Tolerate your neighbor', but 'love your neighbor."

Why do we love?  Not just because Christ commanded it, but because we are loved by God, even though we do not deserve it.  St. John wrote in I John 4:19, "We love, because God first loved us,"

Why do we love?  Because it is a way of life that, while difficult, works.

James Kegel  tells of a story about a young woman named Sarah.  “Sarah came from a family where there was little love. Criticism, fighting, ridicule and violence were the rule. Never spoken were the words, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I am sorry, forgive me.’ Then Sarah found a new self in faith through Christ. She met Jesus and she began to act differently at home. She would stop in the middle of a fight and ask to be forgiven. She began to say, ‘I love you, Mom. I love you, Dad.’ She began giving hugs. She began returning blessings for curses, compliments for ridicule, forgiveness when wronged. Over a period of two years of giving blessings to parents and siblings, the entire family met Jesus and gave themselves to His love. Jesus commands us to love because it will change our lives and the lives of others.”

OK, we get that love is commanded by Christ, practiced by God, and works in our lives, but this command to love is all old news.  Jesus, in the New Testament, says it is a “new commandment” but it feels familiar and old.

Love.  Love, love love love love love.

We’ve heard this in sermons so many times.

It’s old stuff.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Yada yada yada.”

It was old news when Jesus gave his farewell address to the Apostles in our New Testament lesson telling his disciples, “I give you a new commandment…”

You ever buy one your brand of shampoo or soap or pizza or whatever and see on the label, “New and Improved.”  You buy it, take it home, use it, and it turns out to be the same old stuff.  You can’t tell the difference.

Is this commandment like that?

Is Jesus saying, “New and improved commandment here, buy ‘em while they last.”

Love one another?

Same old stuff we’ve heard before.  Love love love love. Yada yada yada.

Nothing new here.

Or is there.

Elsewhere we are told to love others, “as we love ourselves.”

Now Jesus as saying for the first time, “love as I have loved you.”

The bar is being raised. 

It is not just that we are to love others as we love ourselves, now we are being told to love others as Jesus loved.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by a teacher of the law.  "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

And that is what we want to know.

We are perfectly willing to love others, as long as they deserve our love.  We love good people.  We might even love evil people as long as they are behind bars at the time.

But when Jesus loved others, he never asked if someone deserved his love.

He loved freely, and abundantly.

We are to love as Jesus loved.

The person who is nice and pleasant to us – yes, we need to love that person.

The person who is rude to us and says something that hurts us – yes, we love that person, just like Christ loves that person.

The person who breaks into our neighbor’s home – or even OUR home.  Yes, we love that person just as Christ loved and died for the thief on the cross.

Those two brothers in Boston?  The one who is dead and the one who is under arrest for the bombing?  Yes, even them. 

This new and improved commandment is not easier – it’s harder.  To love others like we love ourselves is one thing.  We might justify ourselves and make excuses.  We might say, “terrorists are not our neighbors.” 

But this new commandment says we have to love each other – as Christ loved us.  And that raises the bar considerably.  We have to love everyone – AND we have to love them as Christ did.

Not easy.   And there are those times when we don’t like it.  There are times we would like to justify why we should NOT love specific people.  

But this is not debatable.  We love, because Christ said so.  We love because God first loved us.  We love others just like Christ loves them.

Ernest Gordon was a Presbyterian minister who died just a few years ago (2002).  Before becoming a minister he was an atheist. During World War II he served as an officer in the Pacific Theater.  He was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese army.  During the Second World War, history shows that Japan treated their prisoners of war with extreme cruelty.  The death rate was quite high, and at one point Gordon was placed in the “Death Ward” where fellow prisoners took care of other prisoners who were expected to die. 

While in the Death Ward, Gordon was treated by two fellow allied soldiers, both devout Christians.  One of them, Dusty Miller, never met the cruelty of the enemy with anger or discouragement.  Two weeks before the end of the war, a Japanese guard who was so frustrated with Dusty’s sense of calm in the face of hardship, crucified him.  The guard literally put together a cross and nailed the prisoner to it and watched him slowly die. 

In his book, Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon described how the Allied soldiers not only cared for their own, but for the guards who were so vicious to them.  Gordon’s book tells of a very moving incident in which British prisoners of war tend the wounds of injured Japanese soldiers and feed them. The Japanese are encrusted with mud, blood and excrement. Their wounds are badly inflamed and infected.  Their own army had left them uncared for, because there were simply not enough resources.  When the British prisoners saw them, they took pity on them, bathed their wounds, and shared with them a little food to eat.

Think of that – these soldiers were caring for their enemies who had starved and beaten them, killed their comrades. God broke down the hatred and conquered it with love.  

The natural thing to do would have been for these POWs to hate their enemies.  But these prisoners loved those guards, as Christ loved both groups.

The natural way to respond to people who hurt us is to hurt them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to people who cheat us is to strike out against them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to how things are in this world is to be like the world.  But we are called upon to respond to the world with Christ-like love.

In Boston two brothers responded to their world with homemade bombs and with the killing of innocent people.  They accomplished nothing for their cause.  They accomplished nothing of value.  Their own uncle said it best when calling them losers.  Imagine what would happen if those brothers had responded to their world with acts of love?  It’s true that the world would probably have never heard their names, but it is also true that these two would have made great differences in the lives of those around them. 

And now we are called upon to love those two brothers and their families. 

Because our ability to love as Christ loves is what makes us different from those two brothers. 

The ability of those British POWs to love their enemy guards is what made them different.
It is not easy.  It is hard.

It is Christ’s command, not suggestion.  “Love one another.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever Psalm 23

                                                                 Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]

    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]

    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

I did my first funeral 35 years ago. There have been some years that I have had as few as one, single funeral. Last year I did nine funerals, the most I’ve ever done in a single year.

Most of these funerals are celebrations of a life that has been long and wonderful. There are many wonderful stories told at the service. There are tears, yes, but for the most part, death has come fully expected and well prepared for.

Some funerals, however, are very difficult.

I did a funeral for a young child who was 5 years old at the time of his death. His casket was in the sanctuary. It was so small. I imagined that it would have been so easy for one person to have picked up that casket and carry it.

I remember the funeral of a young man. He was 17 years old, killed by a drunk driver. I think every student in the school, and every teacher he ever had came to that funeral.

There were a few funerals for suicide victims. There was one woman who had been murdered by her husband.

I remember Don, a single parent. When he died I had to tell his 5 year old daughter about her Dad’s death. Her first question was, “Who will take care of me?’

But no funeral is harder than for the person who died without faith. These funerals are the ones that tend to be longer. The friends who get up and speak talk on and on and on, as if by ending their eulogy, the life of that person will vanish. The tears for that person are more painful than even for those of a child or teenager.

I sat in a funeral not long ago and I watched the deep sorrow of these non-believers mourn the death of someone they loved deeply. One of my staff members observed that so often people come to church to get hatched, matched and dispatched, meaning that many people come to church only for baptisms, weddings and funerals, but there is no faith that brings them here at other times.

The funeral of a non-believer is the saddest funeral of all, because that’s it. That’s all there is.

St. Paul said in his letter to the Thessalonians, “we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”

Christians believe that there is more to life than this physical realm. The Psalmist wrote, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

What does that mean?

What happens to us when we die?

First, Heaven is a place beyond our ability to comprehend. What we would like is a travel brochure or a map or some photographs to show us exactly what heaven is like – but we don’t have that. We cannot conceive of more than anything more than a bare glimpse of heaven.

I can conceive of the distance of 10 miles, but I when I think of a million miles? That’s beyond my ability to comprehend.

I can understand having a credit card debt of $100. But a national debt of trillions of dollars? Between a trillion and a billion I can’t conceive.

To imagine heaven? That is impossible. And the reason it is impossible to comprehend is because it is so much better than anything we have experienced.

I’ve had a good life – I can even imagine it getting a little bit better -- but Heaven is so far, far better than any of my experiences that I simply cannot conceive with my limited imagination what it is like.

The Bible tells us what Heave is like in I Corinthians 2:9, which says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”


Second, having said that Heaven is beyond comprehension, one of the few things we can say with certainty about it, is that it is a place of joy. We might not be able to fully comprehend how much joy there is, but we can say that heaven is a place of joy. In heaven there will be no disappointment or pain. Death will be no more. Sorrow and sighing will flee away (Isaiah 51:11). The Bible teaches us time and again about the joy of heaven, and nowhere is this more clearly stated than in Revelation, when it is said that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).


But this is not to say that heaven will be a dull place. Heaven will be interesting and exciting because we will never stop growing spiritually and intellectually. We will understand things in new ways, for Paul in I Corinthians says this: “Now we see but a poor 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).


What is heaven like? Heaven is a place of fellowship. Many people have expressed concern to me about whether they will know their loved ones in heaven. Everything in Scripture points to the reality that we will know each other. In fact, we will know each other even better than we do now. Paul described Heaven in one of his New Testament books by saying, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that we will not know one another.

Jesus told the interesting story of a rich man and a beggar-man named Lazarus. Lazarus went to heaven after his death, and the rich man ended up in hell. The story describes how Lazarus recognized the Old Testament man, Abraham, even though he had never seen him in life.

I know that when I die I will see my sisters, my parents, my grandparents, my friends who died before me.


The final point about Heaven is that we should not be anxious about it. We should have faith and trust in God. Death is a difficult process, filled with fear of pain and the unknown, but for the faithful, these fears should not be related to whether or not there is a heaven or about what heaven is like.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. . . . I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-6).

Friday, April 08, 2016

Mature Faith that Sees - Acts 9:1-20

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 
He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into DamascusFor three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 
11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 
13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 
17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 
18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Sermon                                No Longer A Blind Faith            Maynard Pittendreigh

This morning’s New Testament lesson is about a conversion.  It’s a famous, well-known conversion experience, at least for Christians.  It is the conversion of Paul, or as he is still known at the time of our New Testament Lesson, Saul.

Now one thing you have to say about Paul is that he was a man of great faith.

Before this New Testament Lesson, he is a man of a deep Jewish faith.

After this New Testament Lesson, he is a man of a deep Christian faith.

But that is not the only conversion that Saul or Paul experiences here. 

It is also one of converting from arrogant faith, to mature faith.  From a blind faith to a seeing faith.

Blind Faith listens selectively to the truth

Faith that is blind and arrogant listens only selectively to the truth – it does not listen to the whole truth.

And that was Saul.

Saul was a very religious individual.

He was described as blameless according to the Law of Moses.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of the law and tradition, which was good.

Saul was also a Pharisee among Pharisees, very passionate for the faith of his fathers and absolutely convinced that he was doing the Will of God.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of his community of faith, which was good.

Saul was well educated – Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, one of Israel’s greatest teachers of the day.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of his teachers, which was good.

Unfortunately, of all the voices he was listening to, there was one voice that was missing.  The voice of God.

Blind, arrogant faith refuses to listen to the whole word of God.
I bet you have met people like that.  I have a college buddy who has no tattoos because the Old Testament book of Leviticus prohibits it.  He does not eat lobster because the Old Testament book of Leviticus prohibits it.  He does not work on the Sabbath because the Bible speaks against it.  But he is not generous.  He gives nothing to the poor.  He is racist and judgmental. 
It is so difficult for him to see that he has not heard the whole word of God – or even the most important words.  His faith is blind.

Arrogant Faith has passion without compassion

Another thing about blind faith is that it has a lot of passion, but has very little compassion.

If you have not met people like that, they you have certainly seen them on television.  For example, the Islamic Extremists who kidnap people – mostly innocent civilians, and who hold them hostage and in many cases behead them.  It is so difficult to read about these people in the newspapers, but when we do we often shake our heads in confusion and wonder, ‘how can people who claim to have so much faith be filled with so much hate?”

It is because theirs is a blind and arrogant faith.

It has passion, but no compassion.  It is missing so much that true, mature faith ought to have.

Saul was like that.

He was on fire for God.  He was filled with passion.  But his faith early on lacked so much. 

Compassion.  Love.  Understanding – these are things you find in Saul after his conversion, but not before.

He was at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church.  And as our New Testament lesson begins, Saul is out there trying to round up those who do not believe as he believes.  He makes them prisoners.

Now, we are not going around killing people – but we have to admit that sometimes our faith is arrogant and lacks compassion, understanding and love.

And this is where we see Saul as our New Testament lesson opens.  He was arrogant.  More than that, he was a man who was full of bitterness and hatred – hated anything and anyone who could be a threat to the things that he believed, and those who would cause trouble for his people and those who opposed the teachings of the high priest and the Law of Moses. He hated those who preached and taught heresy against the Law that had led Israel for so many years.

Saul was on his way to do the Will of God as he traveled to Damascus – at least what he thought was God’s will.

Arrogant Faith is a disappointment to God

While Saul is on this road to Damascus, he encounters Christ, and one of the things he learns is that blind faith is a disappointment to God.

Our New Testament lesson put it this way, “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied.

When I hear the voice of God, I want to hear something like, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

What I don’t want to hear is the disappointment in the Lord’s voice, “Maynard, Maynard, why do you persecute me?”

But that is what Saul heard.  The news that the Lord was disappointed in him.

It is a dramatic moment.  Saul, or Paul, thinks Jesus is dead.  And here he is talking to Jesus.

Paul is trying to gather up all of the people who believe in Jesus to punish them.  And here he is, beginning to believe in Jesus himself.

Paul is a man who has had a blind faith, but now he is literally struck blind by the light of God.

Everything changes here for Paul.  As much as anything, what changes is that his faith turns from an arrogant faith, to become a mature and true faith.

And Saul makes the discovery of what true faith is all about.

Seeing Faith has open ears to hear the voice of Jesus

True faith has open ears to hear the voice of Jesus.

It is interesting that Paul has been willing to listen to so many sources, except Jesus.

He has listened to the Law of the Lord – which Paul dearly and sincerely loved.  It is good to listen to Law of God, but that’s not enough.

Paul listened to the teachers, which is wonderful – but even that is not enough.

Paul listened to the traditions of his faith, and again, that was not enough.

It is never enough to hear all of the voices around you but not to listen to the voice of Jesus.

But God eventually does not give Paul any choice.  God knocks Paul off his high horse, literally and figuratively, and Paul is forced to hear the voice of Jesus.

What do we hear when we listen to the voice of Jesus?

Do we hear arrogance?  No, of course not.

Do we hear hatred?  No.

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say, “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.”

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say, "Do not be afraid.” 

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say,  "Your sins are forgiven."

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say,  "Peace be with you!”

Arrogant faith listens to only a few of those words.

True faith listens to all of those words.

There is a story of Paul that illustrates how his faith so greatly matured. 

Years after his conversion experience, Paul is on a mission trip and he is in Athens, Greece.  He looks around and he sees all these temples to false gods.

Now the old Paul with his blind and arrogant faith would have stormed in and called the Greeks idol worshippers and he would have put them down for their false religious faith.

But having his eyes opened by true faith, he looks around and doesn’t see the false gods as much as he sees that the Greeks are spiritually hungry.  They are in search of God and of truth. 

In Acts, chapter 17, Paul speaks to the Greeks and says, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now let me tell you about that unknown God, because I know who he is!”

It is an amazing transformation – or conversion for Paul.  He is able to see the bigger picture and approach these people without arrogance.  He communicates the truth of God on their level.  He sees that they may be worshipping false gods, but more than that, they are searching for the true God.

That is the thing about faith.  It grows, it changes, and it never stops growing and changing. 

As people of faith we can never say “I have arrived.”  We are always on the journey.  And along the way, we will have these moments of growth – some will be gentle and slow while others will be dramatic Damascus Road moments. 

And if we are doing this journey correctly, we will see more and more, and be less and less blindly arrogant along the way.

Along the way.

Did you notice that the Christians at this point in the New Testament lesson were called “belonging to the WAY.”

The way.  Not the destination – but the way.  And we are all on a journey along the way.  Our faith is meant to grow and change and mature and to be more and more a seeing faith, and less and less a blind faith.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.