Changed by God to Make a Difference for God

Sermon delivered on Easter 5A, Sunday, May 14, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the 5th Sunday of Easter, day 29 to be precise. We are a little past the halfway point of the 50 day season of Eastertide. In our gospel lesson this morning our Lord makes some mind-boggling promises to us about troubled hearts, our present, and our future. They are promises filled with power, the power of God. But are we taking advantage of those promises? In other words, is Easter making any difference in our lives and the lives of others at this point in Eastertide or any other time?? The title of today’s sermon is our mission statement and if we are to be true to its intent, we must believe the astonishing promises of Jesus in our gospel lesson and appropriate the power underlying them. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start with the comforting words of Jesus in our gospel lesson. Do not let your hearts be troubled, he tells us. The context for this command, of course (the Greek construction indicates these words are imperative), is the Last Supper and come from Jesus’ so-called farewell discourse found in John 13-17. There’s plenty of reason for Jesus’ disciples to have troubled hearts. He will be crucified dead in less than 24 hours and their world will be shattered, just like ours is whenever we lose someone we love to death, especially an unexpected death.

And like Jesus’ disciples, our hearts are often troubled. The Greek word for troubled has the sense of us being thrown into a state of confusion or being terribly distressed. We know all about that, don’t we? We know about the confusion of lawlessness in its various forms and the fear it produces. We know about health and/or family issues that can cause us to be distressed, or economic difficulties or uncertainties that can cause us to be altogether shaken. The list goes on and on and none of us is immune to troubled hearts. Jesus himself experienced a troubled heart in Gethsemane, sweating great drops of blood (Luke 22.39-44) when confronted with the terrifying prospect of having the forces of evil gather together to do their worst to him and having to bear the sins of the entire world. And so our Lord speaks comfort to us. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.

But how, we want to ask? Jesus tells us. Believe in God. Believe also in me because I am the very embodiment of God. More about that in a moment. Now I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking how glad you are it is me preaching today and not one of the other loser priests. Well of course you are. Who wouldn’t be? But I digress. You are also wondering how belief in God can help remedy a troubled heart. Jesus tells us. The Greek word for believe means to have a strong confidence or reliance on something or someone. For most of us most of the time, that strong confidence or reliance is on ourselves, and we all know how well that has worked out for us. We are finite, mortal, prone to mistakes, and enslaved to the power of Sin. The result is a troubled heart because deep down we all know we do not have the means or the power to overcome all that afflicts us. But Jesus does because Jesus is God become human, the only Son of the Father, and nothing is more powerful than God.

There’s more. Jesus tells the disciples that in his Father’s house there are many permanent dwelling places and that he goes to prepare a place for them to be with his Father and him forever. Of course in about 24 hours, their world will be turned upside down. They will see him crucified dead and buried. Before then they will all abandon him and afterwards hide in fear for their lives. In other words, their hearts will be troubled, and desperately so. After he’s dead, they will be tempted to think he was lying to them to make them feel better, that it was all just a sham and a farce. But they (and we) would be very wrong in thinking this because he is not lying to us and will return to us one day to take us to himself so that we can enjoy God’s new heavens and earth and live with the Father and the Son forever in their direct presence.

St. Thomas, bless his pointy little head, is wonderfully humble and honest with Jesus. Lord, he tells him. We don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way? This, of course, is how we are to approach Jesus with our doubts and fears and lack of knowledge. We don’t make demands on Jesus, telling him how and why he is wrong because what he tells us doesn’t fit our own preconceptions and/or worldview. We ask him to help us understand what we are able, and when we approach Jesus like this we will never, ever be disappointed. Ever.

In response to St. Thomas’ question, Jesus makes a truly startling claim. You do know the way, Thomas. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. In response, many of us today want to ask Jesus how that is possible. It’s possible, Jesus replies patiently, because the Father and I are one. In other words, I am the very embodiment of the Father. And if you know your Scripture, you know that no one can see God and live because we are all sin-sick individuals and God cannot countenance any form of sin or corruption in his direct presence. Great, we reply. How does that help our troubled heart? If anything, we are even more afraid when confronted with the dangerous truth of God’s holy perfection and our sin-sick state.

And when we have the good sense and humility to understand this terrible reality of our standing before God without God’s help, we are ready to understand why Jesus is the only way to the Father. Jesus is the Way because of his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross,  God condemned sin in the flesh to spare us from God’s right condemnation of us for our sins. That is why Paul makes the bold proclamation that there is now no condemnation for those of us who have a real and living relationship with Jesus (Romans 8.1-4). On the cross, God broke the power of Evil, Sin, and Death over us and freed us to be like Jesus our Lord so that we can live forever in God’s direct presence again. The resurrection is our guarantee of this. Like we recite in our Easter Anthems each Sunday during Eastertide, our baptism testifies that we share in Jesus’ death so that we can share in his resurrection. And when God brings about the new heavens and earth at the right time and our mortal bodies are raised from the dead and transformed into resurrected, immortal bodies, death will finally be destroyed forever, thanks be to God! Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have no hope of living in God’s house because only Jesus can take away the sins and Sin of the world so that we can live in God’s direct presence forever. This is primarily why Jesus is the only way to the Father.

And we can be confident that Jesus speaks the Truth because Jesus is God become human and God never lies. As our Lord tells us, only he is the resurrection and the life so that those who believe in him will live, even though their mortal body dies, barring his return before that happens (John 11.24-26). All this makes Jesus’ claim that those who see him have seen the Father even more balm for our troubled hearts because we no longer have to be terrified of God’s goodness and right judgment on us. We see the heart of the Father being nailed to the cross for our sake. We see him ransoming us from our slavery to Evil, Sin, and Death so that our future is life, not death. We begin to understand that God’s justice is a good thing because only then will all the things that are wrong with God’s world be put right, us included. This is the love of God that can give peace to our troubled hearts. Do you have that knowledge and peace?

In sum, Jesus has given these three antidotes for our troubled hearts. First, he reminds us that he is going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house for us to live forever with him. He does that by going to the cross for us to break the power of Sin and Death over us and to bear the punishment for our sins so as to spare us from God’s good but terrible wrath. Second, Jesus promises us that he will return one day to fulfill completely this breathtaking promise to us to be able to live directly in God’s presence forever. Third, Jesus tells us to look to him to see the very heart and love that the Father has for us, a love so deep and wide and broad that the Father became human to die for us so that we can live.

But there is also a fourth promise Jesus makes that is balm for our troubled hearts. Jesus isn’t some dead guy who is out of sight and out of mind. No, Jesus promises to be with us in ways that weren’t possible when he lived a mortal life on earth. Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, he promises to be with us in the power of the Spirit so that we have the power to live as the new creations he has made us in his death and resurrection. Whatever Jesus had in mind when he told the disciples that they would do greater works than he did after he ascended to the Father and gave them the Holy Spirit so that he could be with him, Jesus surely didn’t mean we would do lesser things than he did. Ask for anything in my name and I will grant it, he promises us. Now I am pretty sure many of us here don’t really believe that. We may pay occasional lip service to it, but in our heart of hearts, we simply don’t buy it. And when we don’t buy it, we let the darkness that still dwells in us make us fearful, timid, and ineffectual Christians.

This is what St. Peter is getting at in our epistle lesson when he tells us to long for the pure spiritual milk that is the word of God in Scripture and the Word of God personified in Jesus our Lord. Without mother’s milk, babies will die and without God’s word, without Jesus, we will die too. We will die from our egoic mind, as Fr. Bowser calls it, that tells us to be afraid and to trust ourselves, not Jesus. It tells us not to risk great things for God because, well, that’s just not in our power and everybody knows we’re in this by ourselves. In traditional terms, this is the world, the flesh, and the devil exerting power over us and we are ripe for the picking if we do not trust and believe in the power of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

But when we dare believe and trust in the God made known to us in Jesus and available to us in the power of the Spirit, we have a power at our disposal to literally change the world because it is the power of Christ working in us through word, prayer, and sacrament. Here’s how it works in real life. The next time your heart is troubled, learn from the psalmist how to focus your attention on God instead of yourself and the chaos/evil in your life. Hear him now:

I cried out to God for help;/ I cried out to God to hear me./ When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;/ at night I stretched out untiring hands/ and I would not be comforted./ I remembered you, God, and I groaned;/ I meditated, and my spirit grew faint./ You kept my eyes from closing;/ I was too troubled to speak./ I thought about the former days/ the years of long ago;/ I remembered my songs in the night./ My heart meditated and my spirit asked:/ “Will the Lord reject forever Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever?/ Has his promise failed for all time?/ Has God forgotten to be merciful?/ Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”/ Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:/ the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand./ I will remember the deeds of the Lord;/ yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago./ I will consider all your works/ and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”/Your ways, God, are holy./  What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles;/ you display your power among the peoples./ With your mighty arm you redeemed your people. (Psalm 77.1-15a, NIV).

Note carefully the psalmist’s utter despair. He is inconsolable to the point where it is possible for his troubles to overwhelm him completely and destroy him and his faith in God. So what does he do? He goes to the word of God in Scripture to help him remember the mighty works of God, in this case the Exodus, the go-to event for God’s people Israel, so that he is reminded not to let his troubles overwhelm him because God still loves him and is still in charge, even in the midst of the darkest valley.

This is what we are to do as Christians when our hearts are troubled. We are to focus on Jesus the Word in Scripture, especially his death and resurrection, and on the promise of Jesus to be with us in the power of the Spirit during our mortal life and directly in God’s new creation in the world to come. When we do this, and when we consume Jesus every week at the eucharist, the Truth is reinforced in us, our desire to be with and like Jesus is strengthened, and our hearts will no longer be troubled. Of course we don’t do this solely as individuals. Like Jesus, St. Peter reminds us we are new creations, living stones that constitute the Temple of the living God, the place where God dwells with his people. God saves us to be his people who will embody his great love and healing for the world so that all may know God’s Name and be healed and saved as well. No temple is built with just one stone, living or otherwise. It takes multiple stones to build a temple and so we are reminded that we must become God’s new people together. So we feed on the pure spiritual milk of God’s word together so that our desire for Jesus and to be like him is reinforced and strengthened. This is what it means to be changed by God. When our troubled hearts find peace in Christ, so too will we be changed because we really know Jesus. Of course, until our Lord returns, our hearts will always be troubled to some extent and we will never be fully healed. So we must continue to return to Jesus the Word to be nourished and find peace. If you are not doing this, you are robbing yourself of a power that is life-giving and transformative, and I encourage you to do some serious soul-searching about what your relationship with Christ is really all about and then to repent of that which is holding you back.

As we just saw, God does not do save us so we can sit around and act snotty, thumbing our noses at the unsaved. We are saved, St. Peter reminds us, to be God’s holy people, to make the love and goodness and righteousness of God made known to the world. In other words, we are saved to be God’s people and presence in God’s world. We won’t do this perfectly or anywhere close to it. But as Jesus reminds us, he is alive and available to us each day in the power of the Spirit so that we can accomplish greater things than he did in his earthly ministry. As we have seen, the first obstacle that we must overcome is our fears and doubts about this promise to have God’s power available to us. That will always be an ongoing struggle but we’ve just seen how to overcome that by feeding on God’s word and sacrament.

So empowered by Jesus’ presence, we are equipped to do great things in his name. I don’t know what all God is calling us to do, but I can tell you this. God is not calling us to be a Sunday morning people where we come and give an hour or so of our time and then forget about it all till the next Sunday. I have seen signs of this kind of complacency in us lately and it troubles me (I include myself in this exhortation). When we are content to give Jesus only an hour of our time one day a week we effectively announce to ourselves and the world that we really don’t think Jesus is Lord who has conquered the dark powers or who is available to us to empower us to do his work. Or even if he is all this, we really don’t care because we’ve got other things/people to worship and give our time, energy, and attention to. When our faith does not produce kingdom fruit, but instead produces consistent lethargy, fear, timidity, and/or idolatry, we simply cannot say we have a meaningful relationship with the Lord. When, for example, we only have two people show up for a food drive or to visit Worthington Christian nursing home, or when we refuse to read and study Scripture individually and together or invite new people to come and meet Jesus in our midst, we are really saying we do not have time for Jesus or that we believe we can do great things in his name. I am not talking about missing out on ministry opportunities on occasion because of prior commitments that cannot be broken. I am talking about not showing up at all because we are too tired or not interested or think there are more important things in the world that require our attention or loyalty. At best, this kind of non-involvement is indicative of a tepid relationship with Jesus our Lord, and if we care at all about having life here and hereafter, we need to repent of these kinds of behaviors.

So we all have some very serious soul-searching to do, my beloved. Simply put, if Jesus isn’t the most precious thing in our lives—more so than family, friends, or whatever else may own us—we have a lot of growing up to do spiritually. Let us not tire of running the race and living out our faith. We have the promise of our Lord himself that he is with us and will answer our prayers in his name. This includes finding a true home for ourselves, reaching out to invite others to join us in our work, and doing the work itself. Anything less simply will not do. We are changed by God to make a difference for God and this is what we must do always in the power of the Spirit. Our Lord Jesus is alive and present to us and gives us the power and strength and stamina and desire to do great things for his name’s sake and the sake of God, his Father and ours. Far from being an odious burden, this is balm for our troubled hearts and peace and wholeness for our broken and fractured lives. Let us therefore not grow faint or weary in doing good and proclaiming the Lord’s name in word and deed and by how we love each other. Doing so is living the Good News that is ours, now and for all eternity. Let us do so with joy and thanksgiving. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.