Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hope to Which You are Called

Ephesians 1: 15-23
Pentecost and Confirmation Sunday

“I pray…that you are given a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know God, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which you have been called…”

Today’s church is so organized.  Thanks to Arius, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine – many others, we’ve got doctrine.  And to Luther and Calvin and others for reforming the cause.  We’ve got sacraments, liturgy, liturgical music, dogma, denominations, all of that’s laid out for us.  All we have to do is come.

In the Apostle Paul’s day, the first century, church – if you could even call it that – was much different.  They were just figuring out how to gather as people who had maybe witnessed, but more likely heard of Jesus’ ministry and untimely death and resurrection.  Paul gathered many groups together in different places around the Mediterranean and would continue to minister to them from afar. 

In today’s passage Paul has received good news about a community of believers in Ephesus.  And he writes a letter back to them.  Paul loves to write letters to his people. They are prayed for and praised for their faith, their love, and he prays for their enlightenment to be able to see the hope for which they are called. 

Hear now Paul’s letter to the people of Ephesus (CEV):

I have heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people.  So I never stop being grateful for you, as I mention you in my prayers.  I ask the glorious Father and God of our Lord Jesus Christ to give you his Spirit. The Spirit will make you wise and let you understand what it means to know God.  My prayer is that light will flood your hearts and that you will understand the hope that was given to you when God chose you. Then you will discover the glorious blessings that will be yours together with all of God’s people.

I want you to know about the great and mighty power that God has for us followers. It is the same wonderful power he used  when he raised Christ from death and let him sit at his right side in heaven.  There Christ rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers. He rules over all beings in this world and will rule in the future world as well.  God has put all things under the power of Christ, and for the good of the church he has made him the head of everything.  The church is Christ’s body and is filled with Christ who completely fills everything.
Photo by Linda Bradford
My Dear Confirmands, this is my letter to you.

Your faith today is vibrant.  I can see a brilliant red aura around you.  The spirit has filled your soul.  You may not know or believe that yet, but it has.  You are here by choice today.  You may not have started confirmation that way, most kids don’t, so you honored God, yourself, your families, and your church and you stuck with it!  

I can say that boldly because I’ve observed you throughout the year, through the questions you’ve asked, the ones that you did not ask, through your essays, through your doubt and confidence in God’s grace, through your enthusiasm you’ve shown, the empathy in your hearts for those who are affected by cancer and your determination to put an end to cancer, – it’s all there, make no mistake about it…..God’s got a hold on you!  The call upon your life today is as great as it was at your Baptism.

Called before you were even a twinkling or inkling in your parent’s eyes, God made a claim on you.  You were born and called, a child of God made perfect in every way.  And you were called once again at your Baptism and your parents and family and church promised to love you and to teach you the ways of Jesus.

And now today.  God called you yet through another threshold of faith, to a deeper relationship, with more maturity, with a lot more questioning – as it should be.  God called you to speak for yourself and to affirm your Baptism by your confirmation.  It is a big deal.  And you were ready.

Paul prays for the people’s hearts to be enlightened so that they can see the hope to which they are called.  He prays that they will have a spirit filled with wisdom, much revelation from God so that they can see, that they may know the hope that God has for them.  That is a good prayer, and one in which I pray for all you.  God’s hope hasn’t changed.  God’s hope was just as crucial to lives back then as it is today. 

So, what is God’s hope for you?  Well, as presumptuous as it is, I’m going to tell you what I think God’s hope would be!  That’s what preachers do!

God’s hope is for you to believe, always.  Today you believe, tomorrow your belief may not be as strong – depends on the circumstances of your life.  Life often throws you curve balls out of nowhere.  They can zap you of your energy, your emotional stability; rob you of your spiritual self, leaving you empty.  When times like this happen, your belief, your faith in an ever-present God will be challenged. 

But believe in God’s goodness and God’s steadfast capacity and ability to hold you close and get you through, even when you can’t feel it.  And when you can’t feel it, hold on to your belief intellectually.  Because eventually, with the spirit, your head will transform your heart.  God will pick you up and put you in another place, a better place, a place where you can see and feel your faith and belief all over again.  So one of God’s hopes is for you to believe.

God also hopes that you will know.  That you will know how much you are loved by the one who created you.  God loves you as you are – no need to put on false pretenses about who you think God wants you to be.  You are who you are, or in the word of Popeye, “I yam, who I yam”.  For God you are perfect in every way.  Can you always strive to do better?  Of course, that’s why we have minds, to tap into our talents so that we may reach our highest potential.  But if you don’t, if you falter or of you fall or fail, God will forever love and forgive you. 

You also must know that this church loves you.  Each member of Orange Congregational cares for you and celebrates your life.  I love you, we love you and we all care deeply and hold you very close to our hearts. So another of God’s hopes is that you will know.

Finally, God hopes that you will love.  God hopes that you will love life intensely.  There is so much beauty and bounty in the world, so much science and understanding, and knowledge.  So much potential for good, and justice, and for decent, ethical living – be a part of it!  Love God, love one another.  Love with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.  That, to love is to be in the world, not of it, remembering who you are and whose you are.  Love is to be an active, vital participant in life, in your life, and in the life of those around you.  Love because you are loved.

God’s hope is perpetual.  God’s call upon your life is firm, it’s a done deal.  From the dawn of existence, in Paul’s time, until today, the hope to which God calls you is to believe, to know and to love.  Quite simple really.  This is God’s hope for you. 

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you this, your Confirmation Day, and always.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Thrice Saved

Acts 16: 16-34
Recently I had the opportunity to examine closely the movement of a watch.  There are jewels, stones, wheels, and screws, that are intricately layered together so that we can tell the time of day or night.  There are a lot of moving parts as they say that are dependent upon each other to give us the time of day.   Like the workings of a watch, today’s scripture has many moving parts. 

We are progressing in the book of the Acts following the apostle Paul and the expansion of his mission into Europe.  Today we find him with Silas in the town of Phillippi, one of four districts in the province of Macedonia.  Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth has just been converted and they happen now upon a slave-girl.  Let us now hear scripture from Acts, chapter 16.      

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.  While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.  When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”  The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.  After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.  Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.  When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.  Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.  He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

See what I mean?  Lots of moving parts to this piece of scripture, you wonder what makes it a unifying whole. There is exorcism, outrage, a mob scene, courtroom drama, liberation and then finally celebration.  God was really busy in Plillippi that day. 

So let’s take a moment to deconstruct this passage and have a look at the soteriology or the doctrine of salvation that is present in it. What I see in this passage for our purposes today are three vignettes of people who are in need of salvation, and who receive it, in different ways.  This is what binds these moving parts together.

Vignette One
To begin, you have a slave girl who was possessed with the spirit of divination, literally a spirit, a snake, who predicts the future for anyone who will pay her owners.  To be clear this particular spirit was connected with the Delphic oracle, not the spirit of God even though she seemed to recognize Paul and Silas as ones who preach salvation from God.  It was coming from ‘the wrong place’ if you will not a credible source.

Many people came to her asking her for help or about a way to get out of difficult situations or even about their future.  Her owners, I’m sure made a pretty denarii off of her.  Why else would they be so angry as to seize Paul and Silas and throw them in jail?  The sad part of this story though is that this woman was captive on two accounts, she was a slave and she was possessed.  She was pretty tightly bound.

Why Paul was annoyed with her, well we will never really know exactly.  There has been a lot written about that, all speculative suffice it to say he was ticked off and he silences her.  He exorcises the spirit within her and she is freed from her captivity.  Or at least one aspect of her captivity.  And what happens to her?  Well that’s another unanswered question in this Biblical account of salvation.  I have to say I don’t think that her life must have been easy after that because her owners now are deprived of some good income because she has been freed.  What need would they have of her now?  All we know was that she was saved, she was liberated from her spiritual bondage.  The true and healing spirit comes from God, not from this Delphic oracle. 

But for Paul, this miracle he performed landed him and Silas in prison.  And it wasn’t just a cell but was the innermost cell with their feet in stocks.  And yet, they sing at midnight.

Vignette Two
So let’s have a look at the second vignette.  Paul and Silas, but mostly Paul.  Paul also is saved from imprisonment and maybe even death. There are some things that we can say about Paul in this scene.  He sang out loud even from the depths of bondage.  It’s hard to separate a Christian from their love of God through Jesus Christ.  He knew how to make meaning in a dire situation and trusted with all of his heart in the saving power of Jesus Christ.  With God there is freedom even in prison at midnight.  We know that Paul, through his conversion experience was certainly saved.

He was willing to open the door of salvation to the poor jailer who had literally shut and locked the door on Paul.  That’s forgiveness.  That’s living into God’s open and compassionate heart in spite of what has happened to you.  It would have been easy for Paul and Silas to walk away not caring one whit about the jailer, but they didn’t. They stayed put. And as we will see he offered forgiveness to the jailer and a way of conversion to the Christian life.

And lastly Paul could stand on his own dignity.  Later on, what we didn’t read was that he wanted to meet with the magistrates, the same ones who sentenced him to jail on the account that this ‘Jew’ was advocating customs that were unlawful for Roman citizens to observe.  But HA!  Paul was a Roman citizen too which switches up the entire story.  Would they possibly jail a Roman citizen without cause?  So they apologized to Paul and let him go quietly.  He was saved and free.

You can say a lot about Paul but he never wavers and he is confident of who he is and whose he is.  He is the ultimate missionary for Christ Jesus and he believe beyond the shadow of any doubt that salvation with God comes through Jesus Christ.

Vignette Three
And finally we’ll look at the jailer and his salvation.  This poor man, just doing his job and thought he had fallen way short when after the earthquake he saw that the door had been shaken free.  He was ready to kill himself!  Had the prisoners escaped it probably would have meant his life either by the hands of the magistrates or his own sword.  But then he heard Paul calling.  ‘Jailer, don’t harm yourself, we haven’t left, we are all here’.  That must have been a huge relief.

Then he asks, ‘what must I do to be saved?’.  When he does this he is in essence asking how will I ever survive this mess that I’m in?’  When Paul says ‘believe in Jesus’ well that is his salvation.  Simply believe. Just believe. Paul says Jesus is saving us all of the time because our lives are swept up into God’s story of salvation.  Jailer you want to know how to get out of this mess that you’re in, then believe.  Believe that God will find a way to bring you through.  Attitude and belief is ¾’s the battle.

It is such a compelling question, what must I do to be saved?  There are many Christians who ask, have you saved yet? It always gets my goat when I’ve been asked that question.  As if I’m not a good enough Christian, doing what I’m doing that is just believing in the miraculous power of God to show me the way and struggling through life like everyone else isn’t enough.  I think the answer they are looking for is yes I’ve been saved and can wear that robe and crown and claim my seat in the Kingdom of the hereafter.  But personally that leaves me empty.  I want to know how am I supposed to live now, how am I to make the most of my life as a Christian now?

Eternal life is one thing but why worry about that which is so far in the future?  Doesn’t it make more sense to worry the present moment in front of us? After all that is all we’ve really got is the moment at hand.

What is it that I need saving from right now in this moment?  A bad relationship, an addiction, unethical business practices, constantly yelling at my kids, my spouse, or persistent gossip or badmouthing others, racism, latent anti-Semitism, homophobia?  Be honest with yourself.

I tell you these are the things from which you need saving, these are the things that keep you in bondage and from which you need liberation, reconciliation, forgiveness and enlightenment.  These are the things that keep you from living a full and Christ like life.

Working on things that keep you in bondage is the beginning. Being saved is the beginning of fruitful, compassionate  living.  The root of salvation, salve is healthy, safe or whole.  To pour a healing balm on the wounds of our existence is to be healed, it is to be saved and made free.

Three people, the possessed slave woman, Paul and the jailer  - thrice saved. 

What must I do to be saved?  Ask yourself.  Pray about it.  And then believe my friends that in Christ you are saved, you are healed, and that you have the power within to recast your vision for healthy living.