Friday, May 29, 2015

Fall Afresh on Me (John 14:15-27) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The well known contemporary author and preacher Dr. Fred Craddock tells about a lecture he was giving when he was speaking at a seminary.   One of the students stood up and said: "Dr. Craddock, before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal."  The room grew silent.  Craddock was taken aback and so he said, "Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal Church?"  The student said, "No, I mean are you Pentecostal?" Craddock said, "Are you asking me if I am charismatic?" The student said, "I am asking you if you are Pentecostal."  Craddock said, "Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?"  The student said: "I want to know if you are Pentecostal." Craddock said, "I don't know what your question is." The student said, "Then obviously, you are not Pentecostal."

Yes it's Pentecost Sunday.  Today we celebrate the coming and blessing of  God's Holy Spirit.  Pentecost means 50th day, for it was 50 days after Easter that God sent His Spirit to the disciples.  Pentecost is all about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem.  The Spirit galvanized them into the Christian church over 2,000 years ago.   On Pentecost the Christian church was born.  Pentecost is the birthday of the church and without the coming of the Spirit there would be no church.  

Christians affirm the trinity, one God in three persons.  God is triune or a tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is always something of a mystery for both adults and children.  A father tells the story of their family gathering for breakfast when he asked his 4 year-old daughter to say the blessing.  She folded her hands, bowed her head and prayed, "Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy toast."

We are not talking about the human spirit, which in new age religion is synonymous with god, nor are we speaking about the Zeitgeist or the spirit of the age, nor are we speaking about team spirit.   We are speaking of the Spirit of God, the third person of God’s being as the triune God.   The Holy Spirit is the Giver and Renewer of Life,  who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified. 

Whenever we speak about the Holy Spirit we enter the world of mysticism.  Have you ever thought of yourself as a mystic?   We are speaking about the experience of ineffable union or communion with ultimate reality, God.  We are speaking about God's Spirit in union with our spirit.  We are speaking about God's Spirit dwelling within us according to the testimony of scripture.  We are speaking about knowledge of God, of God's nature and truth, as something we gain through a subjective spiritual relationship with God through faith.   Mysticism has to do with mystery, awe, wonder, revelation; it means to experience the numinous or the holy.

God is not an impersonal, capricious, neutral force or principle like fate, but a personal being, our father, as Jesus taught us. God is over, above, and beyond us as God our creator.   God is for us in Jesus Christ as God our redeemer and God is with us and in us as God the Holy Spirit or sanctifier.   Affirming that God's Spirit dwells in us is a mystical claim.  Some would exclaim: “Praise God” and others would respond “Really, come on now.” 

Jesus in our passage from John uses the Greek word “paraclete,” a word I want you to add to your Christian vocabulary, when referring to the Holy Spirit.  It is variously translated into English as Advocate, Comforter, Companion, Counselor, Helper, and Holy Spirit.

After Jesus' resurrection and public appearances, knowing that soon he would no longer be physically with the disciples, Jesus makes a promise to his followers:  “I will not leave you orphaned,” Can I get an Amen!   “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever.  The world cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, Jesus says, because he abides with you and he will be in you forever.”  Not temporarily, not occasionally, but forever.  This is the inexplicable language of mysticism and this is something to give praise for.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.  What truth?  When you listen to the news you wonder if anyone tells the truth today?   It is the truth that God exists, that God is real.  The truth that sin and evil are real.  The truth that human beings are sinners who need a savior.  The truth that God is gracious and merciful and has a plan and  purpose for our lives and for the world.  The truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the World, who died in our place and took our sins upon himself on the cross.  The truth that Jesus' sacrificial and loving death restored our relationship with God and brought us sinners back to live by faith in fellowship with God. 

It is the beautiful truth that you and I are from God's perspective worth saving and need saving, but we cannot save ourselves, only God can save us.  The Holy Spirit convinces us that we are sinners in need of salvation. 

The Holy Spirit advocates for Jesus and when you confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior you know the Holy Spirit has been at work in your heart.  The Holy Spirit sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and our neighbor.  The Spirit purifies our hearts and illumines our minds so we can grow in faith and to walk in newness of life. 

The Holy Spirit is the spark who ignites the church with power and energy for worship, fellowship and service.  The Spirit unites guides and leads us in ministry today and into the future.  God's Spirit inspires, empowers and encourages us to share the gospel with others and to engage in ministry with others.

The Holy Spirit encounters us in prayer and in the word of God, the Bible.  The Spirit claims us in baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation in Communion, imparts to us our abilities, gifts and talents and calls us to share our gifts in Christ’s ministry in the church and world.   If there was no Holy Spirit our would would be spiritually dead.

In times of trouble or fearful times or in the midst of a personal crisis, the paraclete is our comforter.  When we face difficult decisions the paraclete is our counselor.   In lonely times, God's Spirit is our companion.  

Helper is another common translation of the Greek word paraclete, but we sometimes forget this and believe everything depends upon us.   A pastor writes:  When I decided to start a new church in Los Angeles, I found that I was overwhelmed with pressure and stress.  I was working more than seventy hours a week.  My wife would ask me to take a day off and I would say, "I can't." I wasn't sleeping at night and I began to take take sleeping pills. When the church was about a year old, I woke up in the night and had this strange sense that God was laughing at me.   It was the weirdest feeling.  I lay in bed wondering why God is laughing at me?

I finally got an answer. Here's how it happened.  When we moved into our house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office.   As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help.  So together we started sliding it slowly across the floor.  He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along.  After a few minutes, my son stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad, you have to push too.”  I realized that he thought he was actually doing all the work, instead of me.  I couldn't help but laugh.  But then a moment of realization struck me.  I knew why God was laughing at me.  I thought I was pushing this new church all alone.  Instead of recognizing God's power and strength, I was thinking it all depended on me.”  Do you recognize the Holy Spirit's presence in your life?

God's Spirit, the paraclete is our advocate when we lose confidence in ourselves and battle with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.   The Holy Spirit brings a priceless gift, the gift of inner peace.  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Is your heart ever troubled?  Are you ever afraid?   One of the great manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit is the gift of inner peace, courage, serenity, and tranquility.  Have you ever been in a state of anxiety and then suddenly you experience an inner calm?   In discouraging times the Holy Spirit helps us to persevere when we are weak, to find courage when we are afraid, and to find hope when we despair.  The Spirit comforts us in times of grief and mourning.   Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate test of the Spirit’s presence in your life and mine, according to the scripture, is evident when our lives manifest the fruits of the Spirit.  Do you exhibit some or all of these:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

I close with the lyrics from the contemporary song Fall Afresh by Jeremy Riddle -

Awaken my soul, come awake to hunger, to seek, to thirst,
Awaken first love, come awake, and do as You did at first.
Spirit of the Living God come fall afresh on me, Come wake me from my sleep,
Blow through the caverns of my soul, Pour in me to overflow, to overflow.
Spirit come and fill this place, Let Your glory now invade,
Spirit come and fill this place, Let Your glory now invade.

On this day of Pentecost, may this be our prayer:  “Oh Spirit of God, fall afresh on me, breathe on me breath of God.”  Amen!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Investing Today for Tomorrow (Matthew 6:19-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One Sunday morning during worship, after preaching on Jesus' parable of the talents where the king gives 3 slaves different talents to invest, a pastor called forward volunteers to come up to the front of the sanctuary.  The pastor handed crisp $100 bills to 100 church members. Their task was to glorify God by investing in the needy.  The pastor said:  “God helped our little church to grow, it's the least we can do to thank Him.”   The results surprised everyone.

One member decorated a Christmas tree with cards requesting holiday gifts for destitute families.  Some 90 donors matched their gift of $100 with $9,000 worth of toys and grocery certificates.   Another member told friends at a party about the pastor's challenge and left the party with $1,700. That sum helped a single mother of three who had recently moved out of a homeless shelter to buy groceries and pay the rent.  Another member had emailed old school friends for matching funds and received over $5,000 to help a poor family pay funeral expenses. The congregation was amazed at how God had blessed this act of investing in others in Christ's name.

We are all familiar with the concept of investing.  We take out school loans to invest in our future education.  We exercise today not only to stay in shape, but because we know it will pay dividends toward our future health.  We invest in the stock market or in real estate or in gold or silver to build up our financial worth for later years.  Going to Las Vegas and putting it all on number 29 on the roulette wheel is probably not a very sound investment approach.

Today we are focusing on investing in something that outlives you, that outlasts you, on giving today for tomorrow.   We are speaking about creating a legacy for the next generation.  Now there are many inspiring legacies which we can pass on to the next generation.  The question is – do you desire to leave a legacy that will live on after you die?

We pass on our legacy through financial gifts to schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the YMCA, AYSO and Little League.  Joan Kroc, in memory of Ray Krock, who were long time members of the Salvation Army congregation, donated 87 million in 1998 to build the Ray and Joan Krock Community Center in San Diego.  It offers programs for children, youth, families, and older adults.  It includes day camps, sports programs, personal development, a theater, an acquatic center, an education center, a gym, an ice arena, a skateboard park and a church.  Legacies vary tremendously.  People bequeath books, art, songs, movies, money, property, inventions, programs, buildings, teachings and examples for the next generation.

We invest in our children's future.  A mother writes: “I have 3 children, ages 9, 7 and 1. They are so lucky to receive $1000 each year from their grandparents.  I am planning to invest this for their future education.”  Another mother writes:  “Our family sponsors a child in the third world for $25.00 a month through the Christian Children’s Fund.”  I recall a bumper sticker which read: “My daughter and my money go to UCLA.”   Of course some people have a different idea, like the bumper sticker on the back of a beautiful RV, which read: “I'm driving my children's inheritance."

One article stated:  “Apart from the necessity of encouraging our children to read on their own and reading to them, modeling good reading habits is also very important.  Studies show parents who read are more likely to have children who read.  If you’re not a parent, you can still serve as a good role model to nieces, nephews and other special children in your life.  Investing in literacy for future generations is an invaluable legacy.”

In our N.T. lesson from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ summons us to look toward the future.  We hear Jesus’ warning about one’s attitude toward earthly possessions and money.  It is the caution against the sin of idolatry.   He warns us to not store up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.  Why-because where your treasure is there your heart will be also.   Jesus bids us to invest today for tomorrow, to invest in the present for the future, to invest in earthly enterprises that have heavenly benefits.

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven!   That idea sounds strange for us today.  But the Jews of Jesus' day were quite familiar with this notion.   For example, they identified treasures, with acts of kindness, acts of mercy, which you carried out on earth and which became your treasure in heaven.  A story circulated in Jesus day about a king who converted to Judaism.   He distributed his wealth to the poor in a year of famine.  The king's brothers chastised the king for this generous act.  He replied:  “You have gathered treasures for this world, I have gathered treasures for the world to come.”  

Another story which circulated pertained to the Romans.  During Roman persecution of the church, the emperor sent his soldiers to raid the churches of their treasures.  A soldier demanded of a deacon of one of the churches: “Show me your treasures at once.”  The deacon pointed to the widows and orphans who were being fed, the sick who were being nursed to health, the poor whose needs were being supplied.  “There he said, are the treasures of the church.” 

Can you think of what it means to store up treasures in heaven?  Here are some things which come to my mind.  Serving and glorifying God in such a way that lives are changed, that unbelievers confess Christ and become believers, that souls are saved, that you are reaching people for the kingdom of God, that you are developing and using the gifts and talents God has imparted to you, that you are fulfilling God's will for your life by carrying out God's plans and purposes, that you are helping by your faith and witness and character to expand God's kingdom, that you are loving others, loving your neighbor, through acts of kindness, justice, and encouragement, because in all these things God is glorified.

Recall Jesus' words in Matthew chapter 6: “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  So that your giving may be in secret.  Then your  father, who sees what is done will reward you.” 

Yes, there is a link between rewards and treasures.  Do we enact deeds of kindness and mercy in order to stockpile rewards in heaven?  No, not at all.  Treasures in heaven, rewards are God's serendipities.   We love others because God first loved us.  We love others because God has brought us salvation in Jesus Christ.  We love others because Christ commands us to love our neighbor.   We serve and love others to bring glory to God.   As someone said, “It's not about us, it's about Jesus, it’s about God.”

Another opportunity to invest in something that will outlast and outlive you is to give to our church's Endowment Fund.  Why the church?  First, its the body of Christ; Christ is head of the church.  Second,  because for over 2,000 years, the church has had a major impact for God and morality and social change in nations and cultures around the world.  Giving to the church ensures that we shall pass on the Christian faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ to the next generation.

What is an endowment?  It’s a gift given for the purpose of establishing a permanent fund to benefit church programs and ministry. The principal remains intact and only the earned interest is spent.  As it grows, it becomes a perpetual source of income for the ministry of the church in the years ahead. Why endowments or other special gifts for the church: “They allow us to do things in the church‘s ministry which we would not otherwise be able to do.”

Some churches endow their building maintenance costs, or their entire music program or their youth program, or their giving to missions and missionaries.  Each church prays for God’s guidance in using the income from their endowments.  Endowments are a blessing because churches can do exciting things for Jesus Christ and His church today and tomorrow.   It’s a way of saying –“I thank God for the friends I made, the support I received, the things I learned and the opportunities the church gave me and out of gratitude I want to continue to support Christ’s work even after I’m in heaven.   That is the power of an endowment fund for Christ’s work.

Investing today for tomorrow, is a way for you to express your faith in God and your appreciation and gratitude to the people in the church who came before you and who will come after you.   It remembers that our ministry today is built first on the grace of God and second on the heritage and faithfulness of past believers here at PBPC since 1888.    It means we have the privilege to carry-on Christ’s ministry which they began and which we will one day pass on to the next generation.

One author wrote:   I followed others who had gone before me; they left a legacy for me.   Now I am making sure that those who come after me will have a trail to follow as well.  Think about those who left a legacy for you to follow specifically: Your parents, Your grandparents, Your aunts and uncles, Your schoolteachers, Your neighbors’ where you grew up.  For those of us in America: The founding fathers who had a dream of a nation ruled by self-government; Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves; FDR, who saw us through the great depression; the many men and woman who defended our liberties through the wars so we could live in freedom;  JFK, who called us to space exploration and set us on course to have a man walk on the moon; Martin Luther King Jr. who left us a legacy to pursue the dream of racial equality.  We are stewards of this world, and we have a calling on our lives to leave it better than how we found it, even if it seems like such a small part.  Ask yourself this question: How will my life affect the next generation?” Amen!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mother's Day (Genesis 21:1-8; John 2:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Mother’s Day a young mother awoke to find her two children climbing all over her.  They said: “Happy Mother's Day, stay in bed mom, we're going to make breakfast.”  She lay there in disbelief, amazed at this rare moment of thoughtfulness.  Soon the smell of cooking bacon caught her senses.  Then she heard her children calling her downstairs.   Arriving in the kitchen, she found them sitting at the table, each with a large plate of bacon and eggs.  Looking up and seeing her they yelled out: “Happy Mother’s Day, we made our own breakfast.”

Renowned author and preacher Tony Campolo said that when their children were little, his wife Peggy was a full-time stay-at-home mom.  On occasion, someone would say to her, "Your husband is such a talented speaker what is it that you do dear?"   She would respond, "I am socializing two Homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation."  Then Peggy would ask the person, "And what do you do?"

A mother writes:  “My 5-year-old son accompanied me to my ultrasound appointment when I was 11 weeks pregnant.  As the technician pointed out the shape of the developing baby to my son, she kept referring to the position of the fetus.  After some thought my son asked, "If that's where the feet is, where's the rest of the baby?"

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honor mothers.   We honor mothers and motherhood to show we love, value and appreciate them and that they are special in our lives: single and married mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, step mothers, adoptive mothers, and foster mothers. Today we both honor the memory and legacy of mother’s who have died and give thanks for  living mothers who devote their lives to their family, to their work, to their church or synagogue, to their community and especially to their children.   We thank mothers serving in the military and mothers of military men and women.   

We acknowledge that this can be a difficult day for mothers who have experienced the death of a child and our hearts and prayers go out to them.  Some families will take their moms out for lunch.  We will celebrate the 90th birthday of one of the mother's in our congregation in the courtyard after worship today.  Other families will visit their mothers in a nursing home and still others will go to cemeteries and lay a bouquet of flowers at the grave-site of their mothers.  So today evokes mixed feelings of joy and sadness, appreciation and nostalgia as we honor our mothers.

God has given us the gift and task of being a parent.  But being a parent, a mother or a father, is always challenging, sometimes humorous and other times nerve-wracking, because no manual exists with all the answers for raising children.   Today observers have identified different types of parenting styles.  There are authoritative parents, authoritarian parents, indulgent parents and neglectful parents.   There are helicopter parents, who hover closely over their children, drill sergeant parents, who command and direct their children's lives, and lawnmower parents, who mow down all obstacles they see in their children’s path.

The Bible contains engrossing stories of real life mothers and their joys and sorrows.  The Bible looks at motherhood realistically and honestly.  It honors mothers but it doesn't idealize them, it doesn't portray them as icons of perfection.  In reading the stories of mothers in scripture, we see their flaws and humanness, and yet we also see God at work in their lives calling them to fulfill his plans for His covenant people.  We think of mothers like Sara, the mother of Isaac, Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau, Rachel, the mother of Joseph, Ruth, the mother of Obed; Naomi, the mother of two sons who died prematurely, Elisabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Our first story is about Jesus' mother Mary.   Protestants have not placed much emphasis upon Mary, but our spiritual brothers and sisters, the Roman Catholics have and we can learn from them.  Mary is a saint, a superstar in the Roman Catholic church.  They have four dogmas related to her: The Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Mother of God, and the Perpetual Virginity.  Today especially it is important to remember the significance of Mary in the life of Jesus.

Mary played a vital role throughout Jesus’ life.   After his miraculous birth in Bethlehem, she and Joseph raised Jesus in Nazareth.  They provided for him, educated him, passed on to him the faith of Judaism, and taught him the skills to become a carpenter.  Mary was there at the beginning of Jesus' ministry on the occasion of his first miracle of changing water to wine at Cana, witnessed her son's death on the cross in Jerusalem and witnessed His resurrection. 

Jesus, Mary and the disciples are at a wedding.  Jewish weddings were major social affairs, the entire community, everyone in the town or village was invited.  We don’t know who was getting married, perhaps a close friend of Mary's, because she appears to be in charge of serving the wine.   Mary was faced with a embarrassing predicament when it was discovered that they were out of wine.  In Jesus' day that was a major social faux pas.

Mary said: “Jesus they have run out of wine." Jesus' answer seems rather brusque, "Woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come."  How many of you would have answered your mother in that way?  Saying "Woman" to our mother today would be disrespectful, but Jesus was speaking to his mother in Aramaic.   The word he used was a term of endearment and respect and can best be translated, "Dear Woman" or "Gracious Lady".  Mary says to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus performs his first miracle, changing water into wine.

Mary is a model of motherhood today.  She reminds mothers of important things - to be involved and active and encouraging in your children's lives for as long as God grants you the gift of life. To have confidence in your children, to see their potential, to be aware of their untapped talents and strengths, capabilities and possibilities, to see in them what others don't see, and to trust their judgment and ability.  To give them the freedom to act and to be responsible.  “Do whatever he tells you.”   It seems to me the very purpose of parenting is to launch our children into the world as independent, productive, faith-filled, moral and responsible human beings.   This mom is your mission.

We also meet Sara the wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac.  Sara expresses her heartfelt joy, gratitude and faith in God at giving birth at her advanced age.   She was 90 years old and Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born.  “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sara would nurse children.”   Sara is filled with joy and understands that her child is a gift of the Lord.

Today we give thanks to God and pay tribute to different types of mothers, like this mom, who writes: “On this particular day, I was having trouble doing even routine chores - all because of our little boy.  Derek was 3 at the time.  He was on my heels no matter where I went.  Whenever I stopped to do something and turned back around, I would trip over him.  Several times, I patiently suggested fun activities to keep him occupied.  ‘Wouldn’t you like to play on the swing set?’ I repeatedly asked.  But he simply smiled an innocent smile and said: ‘Oh, that’s all right Mommy, I’d rather be in here with you.’  Then he continued to bounce happily along behind me.  After stepping on his toes for the fifth time, I began to lose my patience and insisted that he go outside and play with the other children.  When I asked him why he was acting this way, he looked up at me with sweet green eyes and said, ‘Well Mommy, in Sunday school my teacher told me to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.  I can’t see him, so I’m walking in yours.’”

Here is another type of mom we pay tribute to today.  Mary Thomas was a single mom of nine children living in Chicago's rough West Side neighborhood.  Seven of Mary's nine kids were boys, young men constantly stretching the boundaries of their tired mother's authority and patience.   One day in 1966, Mary opened her front door to find 25 street thugs on her stoop. The men, members of the notorious Vice Lords gang, had come to recruit her seven sons.   Mary, upon hearing their intentions, dropped her gaze and said "Oh, okay. Hold on just a second" and closed the door.

When the door opened again, the first thing the Vice Lords saw was the barrel of a loaded shotgun.  She said: "There's only one gang around here and that's the Thomas gang."

With that same fortitude, Mary Thomas ushered each of her nine children to their high school graduation.  Her youngest son is pro-basketball player and Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, a point guard for the Boston Celtics.

Yes, it's Mother's Day.  Motherhood is indeed a blessing from God and moms everywhere need our love, our gratitude, our support and our prayers.  Amen!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Connections (John 15:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Nancy and I enjoy visiting wineries in CA.  We have been to winemaking regions in Temecula, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Napa/Sonoma.  In doing so we learned a maxim that winemakers will tell you.  “How do you make a million dollars in the wine industry?  You start with 2 million.”  If there is one investment that has more to do with the heart than the head, it’s vineyards.    

Wineries and vineyards are the second most popular tourist attraction in California, the first one is Disneyland.  The United States is the larges retail winemaker in the world, and this industry employs 35,000 people.  Annual shipments in the U.S. total some 14 billion dollars.

Jesus brings a different perspective when it comes to vines.  Rather than speaking from an economic perspective, Jesus talks about vines from a spiritual perspective, as a metaphor for the connection or relationship of followers to him in the kingdom of God.  Yes, it’s good to be connected spiritually to Christ. 

Think about the many ways we are connected today: You have an insurance claim, but you’re in good hands with Allstate; you have car trouble, you call AAA; you are looking for a job, you turn to networking as a resource; you undergo surgery and receive pints of blood donated by volunteers; you desire safety in your neighborhood, you are part of a Neighborhood Watch program; you have chest pains, call 911 and paramedics arrive in minutes.  I haven't even mentioned our connections through social media like face book. 

Which leads us to Jesus’ message about grapevines. Jesus draws upon the image of a vine to convey the nature of our relationship with Him.  “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower, you are the branches.   As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

Jesus commands us: “Abide in me as I abide in you.  A branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine.  Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Abide in Christ, that is, cultivate a relationship to Jesus Christ, an intimate relationship of commitment, trust, love, honesty, and obedience.  Live daily in Christ.  Seek and expect God to guide you, to direct your paths, to teach you, to renew your spirit.  Abide is about cultivating a spiritual union, communion with the Spirit of Christ. 

I recall when we were living in CO when I was pastor of the Monument Community Presbyterian Church. We had the opportunity to go skiing and I was surprised to see a blind person skiing. The blind skier, wearing a bright colored vest, was skiing down the mountain directly behind an instructor, listening for instructions from the instructor.  It was beautiful to behold.  Over the next several days I saw many blind skiers, invariably following the instructor, skiing gracefully along trails and slopes safely down the mountain. Abiding in Jesus means staying near, following closely, fostering a close spiritual relationship.

We cannot live the Christian life and be fruitful Christians apart from Christ, any more than branches can live after being torn off the vine.  Every branch draws its identity, it sustenance, its life from the vine.  No two branches are the same and yet they are all the same.  Every Christian is unique and yet every Christian is the same.  Our life and identity is derived from the Vine.

God established the principle of dependency - Life is connected to life.  Life is interdependent and dependent; it requires constant care, nurture, nourishment, sustenance and love.  It requires personal investment.  Relationships don't deepen and grow automatically or magically. 

But despite the truth of Jesus’ teaching, people will act the opposite and disregard his wisdom.   Over the years, I have seen examples of how Jesus' warning comes to pass.  Marriages become an empty shell or lead to divorce, because the couple start leading independent lives and gradually stop investing the energy and time that a marriage requires.  Parents and children grow apart and become estranged because they are doing their own thing and don't make time for one another.  Kids are more and more on their own, unsupervised, without parental guidance, and we all know the price children pay and society pays when this occurs.  One’s faith gradually diminishes because worship becomes rare, prayer is spotty, the Bible collects dust, and sharing with others in ministry fades into oblivion.

Someone took the excuses people use for not participating in church and applied them to another area of life – 7 Reasons Not to Wash. I. I was forced to as a child.  2. People who make soap are only after your money. 3. I wash on special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  4. People who wash are hypocrites—they think they are cleaner than everyone else.  5. I used to wash but I got bored so I stopped.  6. None of my friends wash so why should I.  7. I’m busy, I can't spare the time to wash.   Like removing a hot coal from a bed of coals, and setting it off by itself, one’s spiritual life will eventually wither away and grow cold. 

Jesus further speaks about spiritual pruning in the Kingdom of God.  “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes, to make it bear more fruit.”  There is such a thing as an unproductive life in the Kingdom of God.  Are you leading an unproductive life?  A winemaker prunes a vine, to produce more fruit, to increase the capacity of the vine to produce a higher quality and quantity of fruit, to increase fruit production.  Vines aren't supposed to just grow foliage; they are designed to produce grapes. 

And that's why God prunes.  Pruning is a metaphor for spiritual discipline.  God never tempts us, scripture is clear about that, but God sometimes disciplines us to strengthen our character and faith.  God sometimes tests our faith through divine pruning.   God allows us to suffer the consequences of poor decisions or judgments or to go through difficult periods to prune us.   “If you are having a tough time, ask, God, are you pruning me?”

What needs pruning in your life?   What is prohibiting you from bearing fruit?  You may know exactly what needs pruning in your life.  I can assure you that God knows what needs pruning in your life and in mine.  I’m going to pause a moment now and in silence, invite you to ask God to get out his pruning shears.   Why? Because we all need it, I need it, you need it.  Why? Because God wants us to bear more fruit. 

And the glorious news is that if we abide in Him we will bear fruit, much fruit.  Jesus' speaks about abiding and pruning not to be a killjoy, but so that his joy may be in us.  We experience joy when we are bearing fruit in His name.   Joy is the by-product of bearing fruit.    Joy is the surprise which comes when we are using our gifts and talents for the Lord in His Kingdom.  Joy comes when we are doing what God wants us to do and are where God wants us to be.

According to a Gallup poll, which makes a distinction between happiness and joy, nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy.  But a new study cautions that there's something much more important than happiness, because happiness fluctuates.  It is finding meaning in life or a life purpose.  Having purpose and meaning in life increases overall life satisfaction and contentment.  After interviewing nearly 400 Americans, the study found there is one major difference—happiness focuses on "taking" while meaning/purpose focuses on "giving."

The researchers concluded that happiness is about feeling good, its about thinking life is easy, and  being able to go places and buy the things that one needs and wants. The study stated, "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need."

In contrast, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others. Having more meaning in life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, or serving others.   People whose lives have high levels of meaning help others even when it comes at the expense of happiness.  So what's your most important goal in life—happiness or meaning?

Bearing fruit shows forth a Christ-like character in your everyday life in fruits of - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.   It glorifies God, it pleases God, it expands His Kingdom; its about being productive.  As branches of the Vine, Jesus Christ doesn’t expect us to produce more than others or more than we can, for we are unique persons.  But Christ does expect us to produce all that we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.  That is often more than we might think possible.  Someone wrote: “We often expect too little from God and we attempt too little for God.”    

Jesus says: ”I am the vine, you are the branches.”  We are connected, let us go forth and bear fruit.  Amen!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Citizens of Heaven (Phil.3:17-21;11 Cor. 5:1-5) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes:  “While our family was leaving Disneyland, after a fun day, our sons Tyler and Cory, ages six and two were walking hand-in-hand behind my husband and me.  We overheard Tyler tell his younger brother Cory, "This is what heaven is like--except it's free!"

In the summer of 2004, 75 year old Fred Smith of Dallas, Texas, was hospitalized in a semi-conscious condition and not expected to live.  Family members heard him repeat, "I want to go home…I want to go home."  After an emotional family conference, they concluded that they should respect his wishes and not take extraordinary measures to keep him alive.  For the next 36 hours, this Christian family read Scripture, prayed, and said their goodbyes.   His daughter Brenda sat with him till midnight.  Coughing finally broke through Fred's deep sleep and he suddenly awoke. 
Brenda told him of the family's decision to follow his desire to "go home."  She explained that he would gently slip into unconsciousness and then God would welcome him into his heavenly home. Suddenly, Fred's eyes opened wide and he said: Brenda, “I didn't mean heaven, I meant my home, you know, my home on Parkchester Drive." Laughing through tears, we took him back home.

A question which has haunted the minds of men and women down through the ages, was asked by Job in the Old Testament: “If a man dies, will he live again?”  As a pastor, I have spoken to many people over the years about their attitude toward death.  People have different perspectives about it.   Age is an important factor, whether you are young or elderly.  Having dependent children living at home is another significant factor.  

The subject of death is ignored by many, welcomed by others as a blessing, because it means an end to physical or emotional suffering, and for still others death is feared.  Some don't fear death per se, they fear dying.  “How am I going to die, will it be sudden and painless or prolonged and agonizing?”  Others fear dying alone, where no one is with them in the final moments, where no one knows or cares that they have died.  Sadly, some people have seen death as a way out of a hopeless situation and have committed suicide.   Some people believe death means the end, our complete extinction and others believe life continues on in some mysterious and unexplainable way.

The entertainment industry has addressed the notion of mortality and death.   In the 2007 film The Bucket List, two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of “to-dos” before they die or as they say before they "kick the bucket."   Nicholson reflected following the film:  “Jack Nicholson, on of the key characters, reflects on the movie: “We all want to go on forever, don't we?  We fear the unknown. Everybody goes to that wall, yet nobody knows what's on the other side. That's why we fear death.”

I have personally ministered to grieving families over the years.  I have been with people in their final moments before death.  I have experienced the death of both of my parents and I can say that we are never really ready when that moment arrives, when the last trumpet sounds.  It always takes us by surprise and comes as a shock.

If one dies, will one live again?  For some the answer is a flat no. “You only get one ride, so get over it, just deal with it.” But that's not the only response.  Cultures have postulated other answers, because for some the idea of total extinction is unacceptable and unjust. 

Our culture offers symbolic immortality as an answer, symbolic modes of living on.  For instance, there is the biological/biosocial mode, living on in our family, in people's memories, in our children, grandchildren, city, village, town, or nation.  There is also the creative mode, living on in one's accomplishments like having a school, like Kate Sessions Elementary or a hospital, like Ellen Browning Scripps named after you, living on in your inventions, writings, movies, music, art, philanthropy, or in having built something, whether a playhouse for a child or the Freedom Tower in  New York City, the tallest scyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.  Comedian Woody Allen said:  “I don’t want to achieve immortality by my work.  I want to achieve it by not dying.” 

Further, there is the nature mode, living on by becoming one with the natural world, the land or the ocean, where our molecules are re-absorbed into nature.   Others find comfort in the notion of reincarnation, living on in another form of life. What do you think of symbolic immortality?  For Christians it may or may not bring comfort and assurance about the after-life. 

For Jesus' followers, the basis of our hope, the ground of our confidence, our assurance about a life beyond this life comes from Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, stories about the appearances of Jesus following his resurrection, the testimony of witnesses, and the teachings of the scriptures.  The historical event of the resurrection and the testimony of the Bible, the word of God, is the foundation of our assurance of the life to come in heaven.

Our Christian faith and the scriptures declare the truth about the after-life, eternal life, everlasting life, glory.  Here again the words from the letter of Philippians:  “For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their appetite, and their glory is in their shame, their mind is on earthly things.   But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ; who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, who sits at the right hand of God believed in and taught about heaven.  Jesus says:  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”   Jesus’ prays: “Our Father who art in heaven” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasurers in heaven.” 

In II Corinthians we read:  “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I Peter says: “By God’s mercy, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven.”   Faith in Christ the resurrected Lord, gives us a divine perspective through which we can look at this life and the life to come.   We have a dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the United States and citizens of heaven.

What is heaven like?   We read in I Corinthians:  “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.  Now we know in part, then we will know fully even as we are fully known.”  What will you see, what will you know?  You will see Jesus, face to face, God face to face.  What will you know?   Perhaps the answers to your questions.  And don't we all have questions?  I can say this to you with confidence, in the life to come, you will see and you will know.

You will be with Jesus in the Father’s House.  “Hear those moving words of Jesus’ promise – Believe in me.  In my father's house are many rooms, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it weren't not so, and after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  

What an inspiring promise.  Heaven is a gathering of the faith community, the communion of saints.  Just as Jesus appeared to his followers following his resurrection, and they recognized him  and interacted with him and ate with him, so heaven means for his followers that it will be a time of reunion with Jesus, friends and loved ones.   Heaven is a realm where you will be forever released from pain and suffering, from fear and death. 
The Bible teaches that in heaven we will receive a new body.  Think about that.  Does that get your attention?   We will not at death be reabsorbed into the universe, like a drop in the ocean.  Our individual identity, created by God, will continue.  I Corinthians says:  “Some ask, with what kind of body will I come to heaven?  We read in I Corinthians:  “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, what is sown is mortal, what is raised is immortal, what is sown is physical, what is raised is spiritual.  What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.  What is sown in weakness is  raised in power.  If it is sown a physical body, it is raised a glorious body.”   We will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

Hear Jesus’ marvelous promise: “Because I live, you shall live also.” “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”   

Death, even acknowledging the grief that accompanies it, should not be feared or dreaded.  It should rather be seen as God's final gift of grace, because beyond death lies a glorious heavenly homecoming when we shall be with the Lord and others, where we shall dwell in the house of the lord forever, and where we shall live as citizens.   

I close with a quote from the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham:  “When I arrive at heaven’s Gate, God will not be impressed by the many crusades I have conducted.  God will not be impressed that I spoke to more people than anyone in the history of the Christian Faith.  I come to the Gates of Heaven like anyone else—in Jesus Christ and His all sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary death on the Cross for my sins.  We will be in heaven by the stripes on the back of Jesus Christ, not by any stripes, badges, medals or honors that we have been awarded.” This is the good news of this Easter season.  Amen!