Monday, May 28, 2012

In Remembrance

The following is a sermon I gave at Chenango Valley Home and Apartments yesterday afternoon. (We will be doing another service there on June 10, so stayed tuned for that sermon posting as well.) 

It is based mostly on Acts 2:1-21:

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, 
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy. 
19 I will show wonders in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below, 
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood 
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

In Remembrance

Today is Pentecost Sunday, which is why some of us are wearing red, to represent the flame of the Holy Spirit which was poured out upon the apostles. 

Although Pentecost is often viewed as the “birthday celebration” of the Church, we do not always recognize how vivid the images of new birth are in the stories related to Pentecost. Indeed, the true promise of Pentecost is that we are all given birth and new life through the Spirit. In Acts, which we read today, the followers of Christ are gathered together in one place when the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty wind and creates a new community of faith and hope, giving birth to Christ’s Church. In today’s Psalter, Psalm 104, the Spirit speaks and the creatures of the earth are created, born of God’s very Spirit. In Romans, today’s Epistle lesson, all of creation groans in labor pains for new birth and life in the Spirit. Even in John, our Gospel lesson today, Jesus prepares the disciples to receive the Advocate, who will speak truth and new life that they do not yet comprehend. The pinnacle of Jesus’ resurrection story is the new life given to Jesus’ followers—not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now. This re-birth, this new life, is the promise and the gift of Pentecost.

Tomorrow is our observed Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.

While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to really prove the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings that culminated in Gen. Logan giving his official proclamation of the day in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Just as Jesus gave his all for us. After his death and resurrection, Jesus spent forty more days on this earth. During that time he made special efforts to prepare his disciples for his ascension into heaven. As we heard in today’s Epistle lesson, he told them of the coming of the Holy Spirit who would guide them and teach them after he was gone from this earth.

He knew that they were distressed about his leaving them. So He said:  But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have been one of the original disciples, to have known Jesus when he walked the earth, to have heard him teach and seen him perform miraculous healing? The passage from John’s Gospel reminds us that even though we are not in the physical presence of Jesus the Christ, God’s Holy Spirit is with us, to guide us, to comfort us, and to help us witness to our faith. (Dan R. Dick)

So, in a way, Pentecost and Memorial Day are related, in that they are both days of remembrance. The Holy Spirit helps us remember Christ was once here on earth, that he died for us, and will return again. The act of placing flowers on the graves on Memorial Day for those lost in wars, is also a remembrance of them being on this earth and giving their lives for us to be able to live in freedom. Jesus set us free from sin and those who gave their lives in war freed us from tyranny.

Can you imagine being present when the flames came down on the disciples?  First of all, why were all these people gathered in Jerusalem at this time? They were there for Pentecost, which is one of the major Jewish festivals. From the Greek word for “fifty,” Pentecost was so named because it fell on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of the Passover. Another name for it was “the Day of Firstfruits,” during which the Jews brought the first fruits from their harvest to give to God in thanksgiving, expecting God to give the rest of the harvest His blessing. This particular day of Pentecost was the day of firstfruits of Christ’s church, the beginning of the great harvest of souls who could come to know Christ and be joined together through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Our text tells us that a violent wind came down from heaven and filled the whole house where the disciples were sitting. The wind was so loud that it caused a crowd to gather to see what the noise was all about. Then they saw tongues of fire that separated and came down to rest on each them.

Fire often indicated the presence of God. God initially appeared to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed. God guided the children of Israel with a pillar of fire by night, and he descended before them in fire on Mount Sanai; as well as many other references in the Old Testament. Fire also symbolizes God’s purifying presence, burning away the undesirable elements of our lives and setting our hearts aflame to ignite the lives of others.

Prior to this time, the only ones the disciples could teach about Jesus were those who spoke the same language, either Greek or Aramic; and now, they were all speaking in other languages! How was this possible? We know that it was the Holy Spirit that filled them, but the observers were “amazed and perplexed” and asked one another “What does this mean?” And some even accused the disciples of being drunk! 

The Hellenists who were from various parts of the world understood the dialects in which the apostles were speaking and consequently viewed the event for what it was -- a miracle! On the other hand, the Judeans did not understand the foreign languages that were being spoken, so they concluded the apostles were drunk and speaking gibberish.

But, Peter got up and pointed out that it was too early in the day to be drunk. On Holy days, Jews abstained from eating and drinking until later in the day, and when the tongues of flame came upon the apostles it was only nine in the morning.

Peter then took the opportunity to proclaim that this event was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that God would pour out His Spirit on all people. Peter linked the gift of the Holy Spirit with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Peter’s message found its way into the hearts of over 3,000 who responded by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Although we may never have an audience that size to win over, we can always reach out to others, one by one, through the Holy Spirit to help others come to Christ. Our passion and fire for Jesus can call others to us, just as the violent wind and flame brought all those people to the disciples.

As I said, this was the very first time these “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” had heard the “wonders of God” in their own tongue! What a feeling of amazement that must have been. Perhaps we can remember the first time we were told of the wonders of God, and about his son, Jesus Christ, who came to save us. Can we recall that feeling of overwhelming joy, that feeling of peace descending upon our troubled hearts? How amazed and perplexed were we? 

We, too, became filled with the flame of the Holy Spirit. We are able to remember our joy at becoming a child of God. We have a flame of remembrance in us.

Another flame of remembrance is called an eternal flame, which is kept alight forever to honor certain people or events. There are, in fact, over 30 eternal flames in the United States. Some of the notable ones are: 

The John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, maybe many of you can remember it being lit by Jacqueline Kennedy on November 25, 1963 during the assassinated president's state funeral

There is one in Honolulu, Hawaii to honor victims of the September 11th attacks

There is one on the Gettysburg Battlefield, in Pennsylvania, in memory of the dead of the American Civil War, it was first lit by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, maybe some of you can remember that as well.

There is one in Atlanta, Georgia at the King Center, for assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

The one in Washington, D.C., at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was first lit in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

There is one in New York City, New York, at Ground Zero, lit by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the first anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks 

The one in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is to honor the crew and passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 for their efforts to thwart the hijacking

All of these eternal flames are important in many respects, but the most important eternal flame that we possess, is our inner eternal flame – that of the Holy Spirit. We can call it our eternal internal flame, which will guide us until our precious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns. Let’s keep that fire burning!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christ Has Arisen! Let us be Witnesses

The following is a sermon I gave on April 22, 2012 in Norwich at the Chenango Valley Home & Apartments where my mother-in-law lives. It was based on the Gospel lesson:  Luke 24:36b-48:

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Christ Has Arisen! Let us be Witnesses

Today’s reading from the Gospel describes Christ’s appearance to the eleven disciples on the evening on which he arose from the dead. This was actually the fifth time Christ was seen on the same day he arose: by Mary Magdalene alone in the garden; by the women as they were going to tell the disciples; by Peter alone; and by two disciples on their way to Emmaus; and now by night by the eleven.
As the scene opens the disciples are behind locked doors discussing the sighting of Christ on the road to Emmaus, when suddenly Jesus is with them. The first thing he says to them is “Peace be with you.” He may have said this for many reasons. He knew they would be frightened and confused by his sudden appearance among them. So, “peace be with you” – calm down, all is well. Or he may have said it to reassure them he was not angry with them for running away when he was taken captive, and that he forgave Peter for denying him three times. “Peace be with you” – I know you feel that you failed me and yourselves, but all is well. I am here. 
The disciples reaction was one of fear. They thought he was a ghost, because how else could he have gotten into a closed room? Even though they had heard and some had even seen him prior to this, they still were frightened. Jesus seeing this asked them why they were troubled and why they had doubts. Hadn’t he already foretold his return? But seeing that they were frightened, he invited them to look at his hands and feet – they could clearly see the nail holes that remained from his crucifixion. Then he invited them to touch him, to verify that he was indeed flesh and blood, and therefor could not be a ghost as they assumed. 
In keeping the wounds on his resurrected body he was telling them, and us, that it is okay to come before God as a wounded person. He was saying see these wounds, feel them and know that it is all right to hurt.  Pain comes to us all. I was hurt as all people are hurt, but that pain and that hurt no longer has dominion over me. I live, as I said I would.  I told you that I would suffer and that you, if you followed me, would also suffer. But I told you too that after passing through various trials and tests that pain and even death itself would lose its power; its power over me and its power over those who believe in me.
They still did not believe because of “joy and amazement.” They didn’t believe because they thought it must be too good to be true. If you think about it, maybe that’s the way we would react if we are present for the second coming of Christ. Haven’t we been told he will return again, just as the disciples had been told he would arise from the dead? We have heard of the Second Coming all of our Christian lives, just as the disciples had heard of his resurrection all of their Christian lives. Who are we to say that we would not also act with joy, amazement and disbelief as well?
But in order to further convince them of his bodily presence, Jesus asked them for something to eat. And when it was given to him, he ate it in front of them. Surely a ghost could not do that. He was truly flesh and truly there!
Jesus reminded them that he had taught them all that was written in the “Law of Moses, the Prophets and Psalms” – in other words, in the Old Testament – and that he was fulfilling all the prophesies. The Old Testament had always pointed to the coming of the Messiah. His suffering was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53; his resurrection was predicted in Psalm 16:9-11: heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. and in Isaiah 53:10-11:  Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Jesus opened the minds of the disciples so that they would understand the scriptures. We, too, can open our minds to understand Scripture through study, through prayer, and through the intercession of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. Jesus had told his disciples that he would not be around forever to teach them, but that he would leave another “Counselor” to help after he was gone. In John 14:16-17 he said:  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. And later in that same chapter, in verse 26 he said: But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
After opening their minds to the scriptures he instructed them to preach among all the nations all that they had learned. He wanted them to teach everyone – the Jews and the Gentiles – of his suffering, his death, and his resurrection. The repentance and redemption of sin should be shared with all the world, beginning with Jerusalem where he had died. 
In his lifetime, Jesus had been seen by many as a pretender and blasphemer. After his resurrection, people had to change their minds and serve him for who he really is, the Son of God. Jesus summarized the mission of the disciples as preaching repentance, calling people to turn from their own selfish ways to Christ, the one who died for them. The content of the disciples’ preaching would center on remission of sins, which is God’s gracious offer of forgiveness to all who would believe. 
Jesus declared that the disciples were witnesses of these things. He was pointing out to them that they were called to testify to his work.
So, what lessons are we to learn from these passages?
We learn that Jesus and God are all forgiving. In Jesus’ opening statement “Peace be with you,” he was assuring the disciples, and us, of this.
We learn that sometimes when something seems to be too good to be true, it really can be true. Jesus really did arise from the dead which gives us reassurance that he will come again as he promised.
We learn that it’s okay to ask for and receive proof from God that what he says is true. Jesus proved his bodily resurrection by showing the disciples his hands and feet and eating in front of them. I have asked for and received signs from God as assurance that He has heard me, and you can too.
We learn that through study, both by ourselves and with others, through prayer, and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can open our hearts and minds to understand the scriptures written long ago.
We learn that we are called to see and believe and to have hope in the face of death. For God is greater than death, bringing forgiveness of sins and newness of life to those who believe.
We learn that even though some people remain closed of to faith in Jesus, our Savior is not bound by closed doors. There is no room beyond his ability to penetrate, no person who cannot experience his touch, and no circumstance beyond the reach of his presence. If you are feeling far from God, remember – He never moves. If we are far away from Him, it’s because we did the moving. He is always waiting for us to return.
We learn that no word is more central to the Christian faith than witness. Many people may think that witnessing is what the preacher does every Sunday. That’s true, preaching is one form of witnessing, but one of the most effective kinds of witnessing is that done by lay members. Preaching is important, but the witness of lay people, like you and me, is more important. People expect ministers to witness, that’s what they get paid to do. But when a lay person witnesses, people really listen. And you witness not only through words, but sometimes more effectively through actions; that of living your life as God desires.
We learn that we are to be witnesses of this basic foundation of our Christian faith: Christ was born, Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ arose, and He will come again.
Hallelujah and amen!  Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, the light of your love shines on, illuminating the places where you are present.  As the bewildered disciples pondered the stories of your appearance, you penetrated the darkness of their fear and doubt with your  word of peace. You showed them the appalling marks of evil pierced on your hands and feet. You opened their minds to understand why you had to die to defeat such evil and death. Increase our understanding, we pray, and open our minds and hearts  to  receive you, Lord. Speak  your word of peace to us and let your love shine on any dark areas in our lives. May this worship which we offer in your name be a worthy response to your love and your sacrifice for us. Amen.