Sixth Sunday of Easter

Deep Calls to Deep

The Apostle Paul, missionary to the Gentiles, had a difficult assignment from the Lord. Reading from the Acts of the Apostles:

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.   (Acts 16:11-15)

Paul was not speaking in a synagogue, but to a group of women meeting in prayer outside Philippi, far from Jerusalem. Lydia was listening and believe. She not only believed but was baptized and started a church in her home. What moved her so quickly? She was listening eagerly to the message from God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus speaks to his disciples about the Holy Spirit who will teach them everything:

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.   (John 14:23-27)

God wants to speak to us by his Spirit. He wants to teach us. He wants to lead us into all truth. But we must be listening. He has given us the capacity to hear him and to understand. We must listen with our whole being. We must listen with our heart as well as our mind. The psalmist wrote:

Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your torrents;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.   (Psalm 42:7-8)

The depth of God calls out to our deepest level. He says: “Listen to my words of life.” He speaks to us through his Spirit and we must listen with our spirit, The Apostle Paul wrote:

God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.   (1 Corinthians 2:10-13)

The enemy does not want us to hear God. God is speaking to us, but the enemy will do everything possible to distract us from hearing what is being said. One of his ways is to ramp up the voices of this world. It should come as a surprise to us that Satan controls much of the media and entertainment. We might find these voices stimulating and even exciting for a period of time, but their effect is not lasting. Ultimately, they may be depressing. Clearly today’s news is purposely meant to be depressing.

How do we counteract the distracting voices of this world? We must not focus our attention on them, but, rather, on the word of God. Yet it is impossible to drown out all the distraction of this world. We must be proactive. We must fortify ourselves against them. The Apostle Paul wrote:

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.   (Jude 1:20-21)

Pray. Let the Spirit lead us. And, most importantly, keep ourselves in the love of God. God always loves us but we do not always love him. If we are not careful, we may blame him for all that the discouraging things we see today. There seems to be little justice being served. God is at work. He is moving behind the scene. His timing is perfect, but that is not always our timing. Let us keep the faith and witness to the world the love which God pours into us.

The psalmist wrote:

May God be merciful to us and bless us,
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

Let your ways be known upon earth,
your saving health among all nations.   (Psalm 67:1-2)

God wants to show us and teach us his ways. The world needs to see his ways in us. Let us hold onto the truth of God’s love. Lydia listened deeply to God and she made a commitment to him from her heart. Have we made a similar commitment

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.   (John 3:16)

Again, Paul wrote:

Keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 

 

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Fifth Sunday of Easter

A New Commandment

Abraham descendants were God’s chosen people, but they misunderstood the full meaning of their covenant. They added many human traditions to God Commandments, losing sight of how the Commandments were to impact their daily lives and conduct. Something was missing. The human traditions had watered down the Commandments to a set of rules that the religious leadership  would determine how to keep. The scribes and Pharisees imposed all of this on the people, while they, themselves, failed to follow them. Jesus continually pointed out their hypocrisy.

Jesus was the living example of keeping the Commandments of God. In his Sermon on the Mount he said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”.   (Matthew 5:17-18)

His fulfilling the Law and the Prophets was done on a cruel cross. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus attempted to prepare his disciples of what would follow:

“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.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   (John 13:33-35)

This was the most important instruction that Jesus would give to his disciples before he faced the cross. “New” in the New Testament Greek Kainen (καινὴν) implies freshness, or the opposite of “outworn” rather than simply “recent” or “different.” Jesus had loved them without reservation and without limit. He wanted his disciples to do the same for others. His cross would illustrate the breath and depth of God’s love for us.

The Apostle Peter, as we see in today’s reading from Acts, gained a greater understanding of what Jesus was saying. Peter had gone to the home of Cornelius, who was centurion of the Italian regiment. Cornelius feared God, gave generous offerings to the people, and was a devout man of prayer. God was moved by Cornelius’ devotion. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to the house of Cornelius in an unusual way where a very extraordinary event took place. Peter shared the good new of the Gospel and Cornelius and his whole household believed on the Lord.

This brought repercussions, however. Reading from Acts:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”   (Acts 11:1-3)

Judaism of the day, even in the Early Church, required Gentiles to undergo a man-made conversion ritual of circumcision, baptism, and offering a sacrifice before he could be counted as being ‘saved’. Gentiles were considered unclean and it was unlawful to enter the house of Gentiles and eat with them. This, however, was not God’s law, but Jewish tradition.

In answering the circumcised believers. Peter had to justify what he had done:

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  (Acts 11:4-10)

Peter was unsure what the dream meant at first. The dream was not really about Jewish dietary laws. It was saying that God alone is the one who determines who or what is is clean or not. It had to do with how Jewish people looked upon Gentiles.

Peter went to the home of Cornelius. While he was preaching the Gospel, something remarkable happened. We read from Acts:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  (Acts 11:15-18)

By a sovereign act of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles made it clear that Gentiles were not unclean to him, even if they were not circumcised. This was radical Judaism. But it was not radical to God. This act was just a fresh understanding of God’s love for the Early Church leaders to witness. It reflected what Jesus was saying to his disciples on the night of his betrayal: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.”

God’s love must always be new to us. It is doing extraordinary things right before our eyes. In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John heard this promise from God:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be 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.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”   (Revelation 21:1-5)

Can we grasp what God is telling us today, or are we stuck in the old, determining what is clean and unclean? God wants to expand our understanding of his love. Our theology and church doctrine can often stand in the way if we are not careful. Let us meditate on the new commandment that Jesus has given us.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.   (Romans 6:4)

Can we love others that way Jesus loves us? We can if we are able to let go of the old and embrace all the new that God is teaching and sharing with us.

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Fourth Sunday of Easter

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Sheep have a tendency to go off in any direction without know the consequences. They also have little ability to protect themselves from danger. Sheep need a shepherd.

Scripture tells us that we are like sheep. Reading from Isaiah:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.   (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Fortunately we have a shepherd. We have the Good Shepherd. The psalmist wrote:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.   (Psalm 23:1-3)

For this shepherd to take care of us we must listen to him and follow him. The rulers of Judaism during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry were not prepard to do so. Reading from John’s Gospel:

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.   (John 10:22-28)

Jesus is able to promise eternal life because he purchased that life for us with his blood on a cruel cross:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.   (John 10:11)

The Apostle Peter, paraphrasing Isaiah, wrote this about Jesus:

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.   (1 Peter 2:23-25)

We have been set free from sin, but we must still listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. We must still follow our shepherd. The enemy will do everything to distract us. He will tempt us with promises of worldly wealth and influence. And he is able to make good on his promises up to a point, provided we are willing to pay with our souls.

There is another aspect to our listening to the Good Shepherd. The Apostle John had a vision of a multiple people in heaven. Scholars may differ over exactly who these people are. This much we know, they have experienced a great ordeal in their lives:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.   (Revelation 7:13-14)

We may experience ordeals in our lives that not only distract us, but put our faith in Christ under a severe test. I remember interring seminary my first year. A met a graduating student who said the seminary experience had totally destroyed his faith.

The people John’s vision had one thing in common. They continued to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow his direction. They were doing so even in heaven:

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”   (Revelation 7:15-17)

Jesus guides us to springs of the water of life. He promises us eternal life. He tells us that we will not want.. We will not lack anything. He leads us on the right path. He continually revives our souls. He does all of this for us, but we must stay in tune with his voice.

God allows our faith to be tested. He knows our hearts. We must must listen to the voice he has placed within us. The voice is his voice. He leads us to his glory and life eternal with the one who laid down his life for us.

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St. Philip and St. James

Greater Works Ministry

Today we celebrate the lives and ministries of the Apostles Philip and James, son of Alphaeus, often called “the Less.” James was called this name to distinguish him from James, the brother of John. Little is known about him. We know that he was chosen by Jesus and that he was among the twelve disciples on the Day of Pentecost. He was possibly an early witness to the resurrection if he is the James as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:7.

James the Less was martyred for the Faith because he would not renounce Jesus as required by the Jewish high priest. Thus, James was faithful to the end and serves as an example for us all. Without the commitment of James, and others like him, we would not have the Church today.

Let us now turn to the Apostle Philip. In today’s New Testament reading, he seems to be having doubts when he asked Jesus a very important question:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”   (John 14:8-14)

When the words of Jesus sank in this same Philip became a great evangelist. He began performing the “greater works” which Jesus promised. The signs and wonders he performed made a great impact on the people of Samaria when he preached the word there:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.   (Acts 8:4-8)

How did the skeptic Philip grow into such a powerful evangelist? He meditated on the teachings of Jesus. Jesus explained that the greater works that Philip and others were called to do would be fulfilled in the same manner in which Jesus had fulfilled them in his earthly ministry. Jesus said:

“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”   (John 14:10)

Jesus could not do the works alone. God the Father, in him, did the works. This may sound strange to some. Let us we remember that the Son of God gave up all his divinity and spiritual power when he came to the earth. Jesus relied on prayer and his close relationship with the Father. He did as the Father directed him, with full faith and confidence in the Father.

Are we ready to step into the “greater works” ministry? We must first step into Jesus by faith and obedience. Then we must receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and keep on receiving it. If a skeptic like Philip could answer the call then why should we remain a skeptic when there is an exciting ministry ahead waiting for us?

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