Walking into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!, Philippians 3:4b-14

Sermon:          Walking Into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!
Scripture:        Philippians 3:4b-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                  October 8, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

There was a time in my ministry when I used to go to pastoral conferences but the same thing happened over and over again and I got tired of going.  You see, when you go a pastor’s conference you run into a bunch of other pastors which is not a bad thing, mind you, but then it begins to become all types of competition in the breakout sessions.  You introduce yourself and they do the same.  It immediately begins to devolve into some form of Freudian competition where he or she begins to brag about their church and its ministries, its size, and how impressive a pastor they are.  It got to be very old and I quit going to them.

This is what Paul is dealing with in the Philippian church, too.  There were people who were emerging as bigger, better, more theologically and doctrinally correct than Paul, or so they claimed.  They began to call into Paul’s credentials and credibility and Paul, and I can see his head and closing his eyes with a sigh, has to produce his resume and curriculum vitae. This leads to our text this morning.  Turn in your Bible to Philippians 3 beginning with the latter part of verse 4.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 3:4b-14

4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.[1]

Paul is not preaching some prosperity gospel that if you live a good life or a certain type of life you will be blessed by God with material riches; on the contrary, he is reminding the people that the true path to God is by following Christ Jesus’ example. It’s not about living a life that follows every jot and tittle of the Law to complete some Divine scorecard; no, it’s about giving up one’s position of power and privilege to become a servant of the Master. It’s about cutting all cords to what we think is owed to us by others or society in general and rely on the gracious provision of God. It requires a Christ-Follower to make ethical and moral choices in a world where morals and ethics are now based on how a person personally feels at the time in how their behaviour or attitudes affect them over and against how their behaviour and attitudes affect others. Living as a Christian requires us to turn around and walk against the flow of the crowds indicating we are different and are heading to a better destination. He is telling them that to pledge one’s life and allegiance to Christ Jesus means one must rely completely on God’s grace and mercy as opposed to one’s own merits in living a “good life.” Paul then goes on to tell the church the only way they as a congregation and as individual believers can accomplish this shift; it’s a shift that will not be easy. Look at verses 13 and 14.  Paul says,

13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Forgetting what lies behind.  What did that mean for Paul? In his day, “to forget”, meant to release something or someone to oblivion. A few years ago, a movie was released with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock called Gravity. The story revolves around what happens when astronaut crew members on a space-walk outside of the International Space Station encounter a large asteroid shower pummeling the space station.  The space station begins to disintegrate and the only remaining survivors, Bullock and Clooney of course, tether themselves together as they float off into oblivion, total silence and nothingness.  This is what Paul is talking about.  When he says he is forgetting everything that lies behind him, he is saying that he cuts it off into oblivion, nothingness, lost.

He is a member of God’s chosen people, the Israelites.  It matters little to him now.

He is born from the tribe of Benjamin.  In Paul’s mind, so what?

He is a Hebrew of Hebrews. He cuts it off into oblivion.

He is a Pharisee, a scholar and strict follower of the Torah, the Law. It means absolutely nothing to him and its cast into oblivion.

He is passionate about his Jewish faith and goes so far as to persecute who don’t follow the rules. He recasts that former passion into the opposite direction.

He is totally blameless with his following the Law and is considered righteous by every Jewish standard of the day. For Paul, it means nothing at all.

Paul goes so far as to say that not only is he forgetting all those accomplishments and his spiritual and cultural pedigree, he counts all those things as pure rubbish. Our English word ‘rubbish’ makes us think of what we find at the local dump. In Paul’s time, the word ‘rubbish’ meant human excrement. And why is he forgetting all his achievements?  First, they were his own self-righteous achievements based on the notion that, “If I do certain religious activities I will be loved by God.”  Second, Paul has come to realize salvation is a gift freely given by God and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it. Paul knew all his accomplishments of the past meant nothing at all compared to the high calling of Christ Jesus his Lord. Forgetting what was in the past meant that Paul had to turn around and face in an entirely different direction. He would cease ‘doing religion’ and turn in the direction of Christ Jesus to live a life of sacrificial allegiance to the Lord.  Paul discovered a vital spiritual and life principle and it’s this: You cannot walk into the future facing backwards.

Think about that for a moment. You cannot walk into the future facing backwards. Why is that? Well, imagine you and me go for a walk in downtown DeLand. Imagine the people on the sidewalk, the tables from the restaurants taking up space on the sidewalk, all the cars and intersections, not to mention the wares of the merchants positioned by opened doors and sidewalk sales. As we are about to take our first steps past Hunter’s Restaurant across Rich Avenue, I tell you, ‘Before we go any further, I need you to turn around and walk through town backwards based on what you think you remember is in the way.”  What do you think would happen as you made your way?  You will fall, trip, crash into things and people making yourself uncomfortable and the people you run into will be none-too-pleased either. What will those people yell at you as you walk into them backwards?  “Hey (insert your favourite derisive term), what are you doing walk backwards!? Turn around before you hurt yourself and somebody else!”

Walking through town facing backwards is a pretty silly and dangerous thing to do but let me let you in a little secret: All of us do that time to time in our own lives.  Instead of forgetting what lies behind, we cling to the past in unhealthy ways that inhibit our spiritual, emotional, or social growth.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Regret.  There are those people we have hurt or passed by, opportunities we have missed or ignored in the past we regret not pursuing. We get mired in, “I wish I did such-in-such back then because my life would be better now.” When we walk into the future facing backwards at our regret for what should’ve, could’ve, would’ve been or done, we miss the opportunities God has placed in front of us if we would only turn around!

Remorse. There are those moments in our lives we are locked up in remorse for what we have done or left undone in the past. Instead of swimming in the grace God bestows on us in Christ, we walk into the future facing backwards with guilt and remorse for what we did or did not do or say.

Anger.  Anger is another one of those feelings and attitudes that force us to walk into the future facing backwards. Someone or something has hurt us badly in the past; we have been emotionally, financially, or perhaps even physically violated.  We are consumed with horrible thoughts towards people who caused us this unfair pain and we seethe. The anger prevents us from developing new relationships, makes us distrustful of others, and leery of making or receiving commitments. Anger eventually turns in on itself and manifests itself as a deep-seeded depression. Walking into the future facing backwards at old anger and resentments means you are carrying a very heavy load that will cause you to miss your step and fall; all that we have to do is put the anger down and release it into forgiveness as we face forward to a lighter, brighter tomorrow.

Loss. Loss is another issue that keeps us walking into the future facing backwards. Instead of grieving and incorporating the loss into our lives, we grow sad or resentful because of it. It means seeing life as hopeless and hapless. All we have to do is turn around and walk forward and our sense of loss is bathed in the warm waters of Christ’s love and we can begin incorporating that loss into our lives resurrecting hope when there was none.

Nostalgia, also known as the “the good old days.”  The nostalgic dreaming of the good old days is a way to walk into the future facing backwards.  Nostalgia is simply a wanting to go back home or to a time that never really existed in the first place.  We create a past in our minds that help us remember redemptive and positive times.  “Oh, don’t you remember when the church did this or did that? Weren’t those days the best days of the church?”  Walking into the future facing backwards with nostalgic thinking will cause us to trip over new opportunities waiting for us in the future but we will miss them because we have fallen fanny-over-tea kettle on top of them.

The Peter-Pan syndrome.  This is a way we walk into the future facing backwards because we refuse to grow up and mature in our social, emotional, professional or spiritual lives.  Change is hard and so to escape the chipping away of old habits or ways we look at the world, we find it easier to stay stuck where we are.  We remained mired in either/or thinking, right/wrong thinking, you/me or us/them thinking instead of facing forward into the teaching of the Holy Spirit that your box, your world, your thinking is too small. Like Paul, we need to let go of the past and lean into the exciting mind and spirit-blowing power of God and see the world, people, and God with new eyes and perspectives.  This was Paul’s issue and if God can work with Paul in his stubborn ways, then there is great hope God will do the same for us!

Regret. Remorse. Anger. Loss. Nostalgia. Peter Pan syndrome.  None of these is bad in and of themselves; it’s the power they have at keeping us stuck in the past that is the problem.  What, beloved, is causing you to walk into the future facing backwards?  What do you and I need to let go of so that we can turn and walk into God’s glorious Presence in the now and in tomorrow? Let us let that question lean on us a little bit this week.

Forgetting what lies behind, let’s strain forward to the wonderful life ahead awaiting us in Christ. And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Message: Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing, Philippians 2.1-11

Sermon:        Empty is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
Scripture:     Philippians 2.1-13
Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:       First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              October 1, 2017, World Communion Sunday

You may listen to the sermon here.

We’ve just come through a tumultuous time in Florida with the onslaught of Hurricane Irma. For the week leading up to the landfall, it seems like everyone put their life on hold and began prepping for what might happen.  Normally sane people began to do insane things like fighting over toilet paper and peanut butter at Publix while others began to brandish weapons at a nearby gas station because someone cut in front of them in line. Lowes and Home Depot became madhouses as folks were stocking up on batteries, water, plywood, and generators.

IMG_2374

A scarcity of supplies and empty shelves soon became the norm.  I cut my study leave short to drive back from north Georgia to secure the house.  When I arrived Tuesday night a week before the storm hit, there were already gas lines as I passed through Astor and Barberville; even though I had been on the road for over eight hours the first thing I did when I got to DeLand is find a gas station with the shortest line and filled up. I immediately left RaceTrac and went to Publix to pick up some supplies and you would have thought it was Toys R Us on Christmas Eve! Water: out. Prepared whole chickens: Out. Vegetables: Going fast.  Milk: scarce. Beer and wine: thinning out. Ice: forget it. Charcoal: Out. In fact, I took a picture of the charcoal aisle at Publix with its linear feet of massive but empty shelves and put it on Instagram only to have CNN pick it up and run it on the news!  Scarcity was leading to desperation and hoarding.

Yet, there are other types of emptiness, too.  There is financial emptiness when we simply do not have or feel we have enough to get by.  We see how everyone else around us is doing and they seem to be doing fine so why can’t I be as well?  It’s not fair! Why should my bank accounts be empty when everyone else’s seem so full?  A feeling of financial emptiness can create resentment towards others in the community. Financial emptiness can cause one to focus on what he or she does not have instead of what they’ve already got. It’s like the old Cheryl Crow song, Soak Up the Sun, where she sings:

I don’t have digital
I don’t have diddly squat
It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got.

Then there is emotional emptiness, too.  It’s an emptiness that feels heavy and dark. It’s an emptiness that feels there is not enough in this whole world to slake its thirst and craving for something but that “something” evades them.  It’s an emptiness that unwittingly sucks the energy from other people around us.  It’s an emptiness that masks itself in sadness, irritability, anger or passive aggressiveness.

There also is relational emptiness. We look around us and it seems like everyone else is a couple.  Everyone else has friends.  Everyone else has a support system. Everyone, that is, except me. This emptiness manifests itself in a person feeling victimized, jealous, hurt, spiteful, or just deeply depressed and isolated.

Finally, there is spiritual emptiness.  Spiritual emptiness is seen in people who love the things and ways of culture for themselves as opposed to gaining life through a community in sacrifice. Spiritual emptiness is seen in our propensity for libertine living because we are searching for something, indeed, Something, to fill this gaping void in our souls. This is an emptiness that causes people to become selfish, greedy, and prideful. This is an emptiness which causes a person to lead a life that’s “all about me” versus “it’s really about us.” It’s an emptiness that abuses people, enslaves people, and wipes out the Imago Dei, the very Image of God, in others and our environment.  This is the emptiness Paul is describing in today’s text.  It’s also an emptiness that Paul points to as possible Easter-moment, a time when rebirth can occur.

This morning we are continuing our study of Philippians with what is thought to be one of the earliest credos or corporate statements of faith in the early Church.  Paul is addressing some unspecified problems going on in the Philippian church and we begin to see what those issues are revolving around in our text today.  We will be reading from The Message Bible and the text is printed in your bulletin wrap for your convenience.  Listen to the Word of the Lord from Philippians 2.1-11.

2.1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. [1]

It appears there were some in the Philippian church who were in fact spiritually empty because they were too full of themselves.  These church folks were concerned about their understanding of Jesus over and against your understanding of Jesus. They were pushing themselves up the ladder of influence and notoriety to become the power players swaying to shape other Christian’s views and loyalty.  They wanted the power.  They wanted to control and be in charge.  They would accomplish this even to the point of disparaging the founder of their local Church, Paul himself and Paul would not fall for their baiting tactics.

What does Paul do?  Paul describes the spiritual emptiness that must take place to be full of the power and presence of God and he looks to Jesus as the example to do it.  Paul reminds them Jesus had equal status with God but he “set aside the privileges of deity and became human.” And as our text reminds us, “It was a very humbling process.”  The original language describes this setting aside his deity as a total emptying of himself – a pouring out.[2] Imagine a pitcher of water being drained to the dregs.  This is what the Eternal Christ did!  He emptied himself of being God to become fully human which in turn enables you and me to become fully re-engaged in a relationship with God the Father again!

Christ Jesus emptied himself of Divine privileges in order that our fallen humanity could regain ours. Christ humbled himself so that you and I could be lifted up. God became a bona fide human being like you and me so as to completely relate with what we feel, think, believe, and experience in order to redeem those feelings, thoughts, and experiences we have.

Church, God emptied himself so that you and I, indeed, this whole wonderful creation, could become full of God.  Jesus emptied himself so that we could become filled. Yet, there is one thing necessary before this can happen.  We must follow the Christ’s example.

Each one of us must pour our inner self out in order to become full of Holy Spirit and Christ. We are being called to pour out our self-importance.  We are being called to kill our overfed egos.  We are being called to empty out any sense of entitlement from deep within us and refill ourselves with love for God and neighbor.  We are called to set aside any privileges we think we have or are owed and run straight to the back of the line and push and encourage others to go first.  It’s only when we are empty of ourselves, wish dreams, lusts, drives for power and success that we become available vessels of love and grace for the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, Jesus emptied himself, poured himself out for you and for me.  The question for you and I is what exactly each of us need to pour out in our own lives that is getting in the way and displacing the infilling of the Holy Spirit of Christ in our hearts and souls.  What is occupying our spirits and souls that is displacing room for Jesus?

This morning is Worldwide Communion Sunday, a day when Christians around the world from all traditions empty themselves of their dogma and traditions and become truly one in Christ and one with the whole Church.  As you prepare to receive the meal, be asking our Lord what you need to purge in our life – feelings, behaviors, or experiences – that are getting in the way of your infilling of the Holy Spirit.  Come to the Table empty.  Leave the Table full of Christ. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress).

[2] The Greek term Paul uses is kenosis.

The Message: Gospel-worthy Living; Philippians 1:20-30

Sermon:       Gospel Worthy
Scripture:    Philippians 1.20-30
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:              September 24, 2017

You may listen to the Message by clicking here.

Let me set this morning’s message up with this:  It’s not about me!  Repeat that together, “It’s not about me!” That’s correct, it’s not about just you because it’s about us!  So, is this about “you?” “No, it’s not about me!”  Good!

not about me

Last week we began considering the book of Philippians and noted straightaway individual words in a letter are never wasted.  We focused on the first three verses of Paul’s greeting to the church in Philippi he penned while he was a prisoner in Caesar’s prison under the supervision of the Imperial Guard.

Do you remember what Paul’s words were?

From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to the saints (i.e. set apart ones) in Christ Jesus in Philippi.

Paul is reminding the church who Paul and Timothy work for and who their ultimate responsibility is invested in: Christ Jesus. This is a theme he repeats throughout the letter as Paul is trying to remind the church that there are many opinions and theologies floating around in the Church, and regardless of what people think of him or Timothy, they are bondservants of the Lord and not the people.  This realization frees up Paul and his colleagues because they are not going to take to heart personal attacks on their faith, character or work. You see, they know all too well it’s not about “me!”

Today, we are picking up a little later in chapter one after Paul has acknowledged there may be some divisions in the church because of rival gospels being shared.  One version of the gospel circulating there says you must follow Jewish customs of circumcision and the likes in order to be a Christian while another rival group says those Jewish customs are not necessary. Paul also says how there are some preachers and teachers in the church who preach Christ for selfish gain as well as preachers and teachers who teach for the genuine purpose of proclaiming the Good News. At this point, Paul declares it doesn’t matter if Christ is preached with pure or impure motives but that Jesus the Christ is proclaimed in every single way possible![1]  Paul trusts the Holy Spirit will work the motives and the Truth to the surface just as long as Jesus is proclaimed. This is where we pick up today.  Turn to Philippians 1:20-30.  We will be focusing on verses 27 and look at the Christian propensity of keeping spiritual score.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:20-30

20It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.

21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. [2]

The key sentence for us is verse 20 which is the fuse that blows this text up.  It is where Paul declares that it is his expectation and hope to speak with all boldness that Christ will be exalted and lifted up. It’s all about Christ and not about Paul. This is all that matters to Paul and Timothy. Sure, he would rather rest from his earthly labors and struggles and be at One with the exalted Christ in glory but Paul knows his call is not about his wish dreams and desires; his life is all about what God wants from him to accomplish for the Gospel’s sake, even if it means he must go through human suffering and discomfort to get it done. After all, in Paul’s mind, why should his life be any different from the suffering Jesus’ went through? He knows it’s not about “me.”

Built upon his appeal to exalt Christ, Paul then shifts focus and directs his appeal to the members of the church; in other words, Paul is speaking to you and me.  Slide your finger to verses 27 and 28. Let’s drill down a bit. Let me give you a very literal reading of these verses:

Only, live and act like a citizen whose behavior is congruous with the Gospel of Christ Jesus; whether I’m physically there or not, I will hear how you are not giving up a single inch in your reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus, a community that is synchronized and dancing to the same spiritual tune with a singularly pulsing Jesus-centered life; and don’t be scared of those in the church and world who set themselves up to oppose you.[3]

Paul has just given us the definition of a Gospel-worthy life. We often think a life worthy of the Gospel means exhibiting certain our moral or ethical behaviors to the world; it’s interesting to note that Paul is telling us that Gospel-worthy living does involve the displaying of certain behaviors but they are not the ones the Christians tend to focus upon. We Christian-types like to look at the bottom line behavior of folks:  Are they good or bad? Are they moral, immoral or amoral?  Are they ethical or unethical?  We like to measure Gospel-worthy living with a pietistic scorecard with points added or deducted based on our “good Christian behavior.” We tend to make it all about “me” and how “I” behave or misbehave.

Let’s say you cuss in front of your children or grandchildren, you deduct two points on your spiritual scorecard.  If you lust after someone, that’s an automatic deduct of 25 points!  Give a street person a manna bag with water and basic provisions, however, you get 10 points added and if you actually stop and speak with that homeless person making him or her feel like a real human being, you get a bonus +15 points!  At the end of the day, God tallies up the score and then places it in a heavenly Excel spreadsheet so at the time of death, God can average out your cumulative spiritual score. This kind of spiritual thinking makes our faith “all about me” instead of our allegiance to God. Friends, so many Christians do this and all it results in is a mass expression of missing the point through self-focused musings.

For Paul and Timothy, a Gospel-worthy life is not one based on personal moral do’s and don’ts per se. Lest we forget, Paul is writing to a community, a group.  We read his words at home by ourselves and think he’s writing to “me;” never mind the “you” in our text is plural and not singular! Gospel-worthy living is less about personal behavior as it is about a communal expression of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to the world. So, what does Gospel-worthy living look like? Verses 27 and 28 hold the key.

To begin with, a spiritual community’s life is Gospel-worthy, it’s living a life worthy of the Gospel, when it’s lived congruently with the type of community Jesus was trying to establish.  What type of community is that like?  Jesus developed an upside-down community where the poor are blessed and the rich are humbled. It’s a community where those in power give it up and enable those from the margins to get to the front of the line.  It’s when a community seeks to work together helping a person change from the inside out in order to make the entire community stronger and more spiritually fit.  It’s when a community tells one another, “I’m sorry and I love you” as opposed to “I’ll never forgive you and I hate you.”  A Gospel-worthy life is expressed when the community turns its gaze from within itself to the dying world outside her boundaries. It’s a community where people move from being tight-fisted to one knowing that everything it has is God’s and is a gift from God. It’s a community that speaks Truth in Love. It’s a community that measures success not in size or numbers but in its reliance on Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, a spiritual community’s life is seen as a life worthy of the Gospel, i.e. Gospel-worthy, when it refuses to give up a single inch in its reflection of the very spiritual nature of Jesus. The waves of the world and Western culture batter the church of Jesus to the point where the Church acts like it is more in retreat than it is advancing. The Church is more likely to adapt to culture than insisting the culture adapt to the Gospel-worthy life of Jesus Christ. For the sake of being seeker or user-friendly, the Church has lost the meaning of sanctuary, i.e. a place that is safe and is instead being morphed into place where the cut-throat ways of the corporate world with alliances, cliques, secret deals are being made to the exclusion of other members. On the contrary, a Gospel-worthy life is one that reflects the spiritual nature of Jesus in community but sadly that is a nature that can only be assumed through hard work, effort and sacrifice. It means reading your Bible which most Christians in the Church don’t do.  It’s means serving others even when it’s not convenient. It means learning with others what it means to a spiritual change agent in the world in lieu of trying to figure it out on one’s own. It means a community that is not hasty but seeks to listen to the needs of the broken around them.

Third, a Gospel-worthy community is one that works together in spiritual and relational synchronicity towards a singular purpose of being more like Jesus.  It’s not a Church that promotes programs but one that provides ministry opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. Churches today seem to compete against one another as opposed to being unified in a singular purpose of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. Instead of the Church of Jesus Christ acting as the Light on the Hill in our world, it has contented itself to simply becoming singular fireflies that only come out one season of the year and occasionally flash light for those who happen to see it. A Gospel-worthy community puts Jesus first, in the center, at the top!

Finally, a life worthy of the Gospel is a life in community that is expressed when the Church lives without fear. What can the world do that God cannot overwhelm or overcome? The Church doesn’t have to fear the State removing the 10 commandments at the courthouse because it has taught and planted those commandments in the heart of her members. The Church does not have to live in fear of being marginalized by society, the news, or other cultures; a Gospel-worthy Church will always be attacked and humiliated by people in the larger world. If Jesus’ own family thought at one time he was crazy we can guarantee our neighbors, the news, and the politicos will think we are, too! Personally, I am all too happy to be seen as an iconoclast!

Beloved, personal piety is important – please don’t misunderstand me; but personal piety for the sake of personal piety is spiritual narcissism. It’s only when I take my spiritual giftedness and add it to yours, and yours, and yours that we become One in Christ Jesus. The question before us is what each of us is individually bringing to the larger community called First Presbyterian that highlights to our neighborhood, DeLand, Volusia County and beyond that we are a Gospel-worthy community? Gospel-worthy living is more about how to live in community being a Light on the Hill than it is being a sporadic, flickering firefly that comes and goes.

This is what Paul was getting at in our text today.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See Philippians 1.15-18.

[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] This my personal translation.

Sermon #2 on Mission: When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon #2 on Mission:  When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point!, Matthew 10:24-39.

Sermon:        When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Stay on Point
Scripture:    Matthew 10:24-39
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:          June 25, 2017, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 7

Last week we began looking at the second major sermon in Matthew’s Gospel as we started delving into Jesus’ focus on mission.  We noted how Jesus called out twelve Apostles who then received their marching orders from Jesus to go out to preach and heal.  We particularly noted why mission matters to Christ, what the first step is in any form of mission we undertake, and we looked at the overall purpose of mission in God’s eyes.  Today, we are continuing along in the same sermon Jesus was giving last week but as you see today, the focus has shifted to what you and I can expect in undertaking mission in the world.  Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 10:24-39

 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.[1]

There is so much meat in this text that it would appear to be an overstuffed sandwich! There are so many “hot topics” Jesus raises from God’s Providence, human fear to cross-bearing! You would think it easy to make our lection a shorter reading but as I dug into it, I realized Jesus’ words must be taken as a whole unit. Why? Because Jesus wants his disciples to know that when the going gets tough (and it most definitely will), then the tough are called to stay on point.

It’s a little different from our colloquial saying that says when the going gets tough the tough get going. When the going gets tough and the tough get going, we hear it as a call to gather up strength from whatever source you can and keep on going forward no matter what. If you were running a marathon and at mile 16 I yell at you, “Hey Martha, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” you would hear that as a personal encouragement to reach down inside yourself and pull some more up the bottom. This in and of itself is not a bad thing to do per se but this is not what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to understand.  You see, when the tough get going they could change their direction and go the other way or take an alternate way and path they were originally taking. Contrary to this Jesus is telling the disciples that when the going gets tough, the disciples are to stay focused and on point. As a racehorse has blinders on to prevent them seeing the neighboring horses immediately on their left and right, the blinders help the horse not to become distracted and stay focused on the course they are running because they are running for a purpose and have a goal to succeed.

Today’s scripture outlines how Jesus wants his disciples to stay focused and on point.  Let’s briefly look at the two blinders Jesus uses to keep the disciples focused and then we will identify the goal Jesus wants us to achieve in our mission.

Blinder number one: Verses 24 – 31 have Jesus reminding the disciples that they are not going to experience anything different than Jesus himself has experienced. Jesus reminds them as he was called names and maligned and so will the disciples.  We see this clearly in Matthew a few chapters ahead when the religious officials tell people Jesus is really Beelzbul, i.e. Satan, God’s arch-enemy.[2]

There is an interesting word-play with the name Beelzbul.  In antiquity, names meant something. So for example, my name Patrick means ‘the one who is noble’ and I would try to live into that name’s meaning.  Beelzbul refers to Satan, God’s enemy, but it also means, ‘god of the dung heap.’ So the theological literalists of his day would be calling Jesus Satan or comparing him to Satan, while others who simply did not take Jesus seriously derisively called him this to infer he was the god, lord of the dung pile. Consequently, Jesus was seen as a threat at worst or not taken seriously as a joke at best. He’s either Satan or lord of the piles.  Either way, people will hear and see his message as a threat and/or a joke.

Jesus is reminding you and me that our life of mission will have the same effects his did in both positive and negative ways.  The disciples will preach and they will heal but Jesus is reminding us that we are to remember that people will take the gospel message as a threat or they will see it, and us (the Church), as a joke. We see this happening today all over America. It is because of this fact, disciples are to remember the intentional loving care of God for them. He is telling them you will be treated as I am treated, i.e. with contempt or disdain, but you will also be cared for by the all-encompassing Providential Care of God!  Does not the Father in heaven care for the sparrow?  Does not the Father in heaven know how many hairs are on top of our heads? The answer is yes, most definitely, but keep shouting the message from the rooftops anyway! You’ll be treated as I am treated but stay on point and tell the Story openly for all to hear!  There’s the first horse blinder keeping our eyes focused ahead.

The second blinder offered to keep our goal in sight is found in verses 34 – 39.  It’s the blinder that reminds us that being a disciple takes hard work and we are to expect that fact. American Christianity has become Joel Osteened to the point that we believe once we follow Jesus, we can sit back and expect the material blessing faucet to be turned on over us. Our lives of discipleship will be happy, easy, and our lives will be overwhelmed with material prosperity. Jesus is saying that is a bunch of hooey.

He’s reminding the disciples that their work will disrupt and cause problems in the most basic and most important aspect of their very social structure: It’s going to threaten Jewish family loyalty. The old ways of believing God will bless you if you behave correctly are being replaced with Jesus’ words of God’s desire for us to live lovingly and justly with each other.  It’s not that Jesus wants families and the social structure of the Jewish community ripped apart; Jesus is simply stating the reality of what will happen.

The status quo, the peaceable way things are, is to be overturned. When the ethic and character of God expressed through love and justice is introduced, people, systems, groups, churches, and social structures get uncomfortable. We like it when the boat isn’t rocked. Yet, Jesus is reminding us that the status quo of judging others for their sexual orientation and not seeing them as a child of God makes a mockery of the power of the Cross. He is reminding us that the status quo of our nation’s tendency to overlook the poor because it affects our personal bottom line is unethical. He is reminding us that the oft-used excuse that it’s too hard to change the social structures to care for the least of these just will not cut it anymore. Jesus is reminding us that the message of love and justice is hard.  We will be maligned.  We will be taunted.  We will be accused of being out of touch. We are to keep our race blinders on and keep moving toward the goal of his message: Reconciliation, love, and justice.

Blinder one keeping us focused: When the going gets tough, the tough are reminded that we are experiencing what Jesus did and God has our backs. Blinder two keeping us focused:  When the going gets tough, we are not to be surprised when the world pushes back against the message of Christ.  So what is the goal these blinders are directing us toward down that race track?

Verses 32 and 33 say, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Our goal is that when the going gets tough, the tough stay on point, they stay on focus and that means to acknowledge, affirm, and show allegiance to Jesus and his way of reconciliation, love, and justice.  We deny Jesus when we fail to reconcile with our kids, spouse, neighbors, coworkers, or fellow Republicans, Democrats and Independents across the political aisle. We deny Jesus when we fail to show love to the invisible ones among us. We deny Jesus when we fall back solely with a ‘what’s in for me” mindset and fail to execute biblical ethics and justice for our neighbor.

When the going gets tough, the tough keep on point and purpose. Jesus isn’t asking you or me to do anything he has not done himself. It’s not easy but God is in control. It’s not easy because demonstrating love, reconciliation and justice make everyone uncomfortable. Our text today leaves us a question to wrestle with this week: In my life, in this church’s life, am I, are we, staying on point and acknowledging the Christ or are we denying him before the Father and the world? Let’s remember Jesus’ words that those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for his sake will find it.

Let’s pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] See Matthew 12:24, 27.

The Trinity and the Law of Three

The Trinity and the Law of Three

Sermon:          The Trinity and Law of Three
Scripture:       Genesis 1.1-5
Preacher:       Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:               June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Today on the church calendar we are taking the time to pause and celebrate Trinity Sunday. Following immediately last Sunday’s Pentecost celebration, Trinity Sunday is a day we remember the character and type of God we love and serve. The Trinity has been much debated by scholars and religious greats for 2,000 years and I do not kid myself into thinking I have anything important to add.  Yet, I want us to think critically on the Trinity and today’s scripture passage will provide us the foundation from which to look at the oft-ignored Trinity of God.

This morning’s scripture is a timeless old passage many people have heard before. I am speaking of the first description of Creation in our Bible. This morning, the lectionary has us reading through the entire week of Creation which goes into chapter two of Genesis but I will be reading simply the first five verses of Genesis 1.

1:1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. 3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day One.[1]

The Creation.  I am choosing to only read the first five verses because the Creation Story itself gets people thinking about all sorts of things, some of which are not too helpful. Engaged discussion on the Creation has often brought disagreements between fellow Christians as well as derision from those outside the Church. Why is this?

Well, we tend to look at life through binary lenses and we bring those binary lenses into our reading of Scripture.  For example, a binary way of looking at the world sees things as either this way or that way. Complex issues are reduced to either black or white; now I don’t know too many people whose lives are as simple as black or white.  I imagine everyone here would say that his or her life has many different shades of gray in them!  So, with the Creation accounts, our human tendency is to assume one of two positions as we read this Story.  On one hand, we read the Story from a pre-critical point of view and understand that the earth is only between 6 and 10,000 years old according to the biblical accounts of Creation and the history of humankind in the Bible. Pre-critical readers understand that each day of creation was a literal day and it took God six full days to create the universe and humankind.[2]

On the other hand, others will read this Story from a second point of view called a critical reading of the Story.  They are going to point to the sciences of geology and biology and argue that the world is really 4.5 billion years old. They are going to see the comparison and contrasts with the Hebrew telling of creation with other ancient creation narratives from other cultures.  A critical reader will hold that the Hebrews took elements of the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and rewrote it in a way that highlighted the Jewish understanding of a monotheistic God.

Consequently, when we look at the world through binary lenses, our faith and intellect are forced to choose between this way of understanding Creation (i.e. six literal days) or that way of understanding of Creation (i.e. the Hebrews co-opting another culture’s narrative). Binary thinking often posits two sides against the other.  Either “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “you’re wrong and I’m right!”  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a third way to approach the scriptures? There is.

You see, a third way of hearing our text today is simply taking what the pre-critical and critical reader say for what they describe.  Together, pre-critical reading leads to a critical reading that ultimately delivers us to a third, post-critical way of reading Scripture; post-critical reading also called a literary reading of the text, is simply looking at what the Scripture says about God’s relationship to His creation and to people.  A third way of approaching scripture does not bog itself down into the minutia as to whether or not the world is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old.  A literary reader may find it interesting that the Hebrews may have taken passages of her Creation Story from the Gilgamesh narrative.  But what the third way of reading scripture does is to force us to intellectually, spiritually and emotionally reflect on how this creative God and this Story is active in our lives this very moment. It reads the Bible as it is at face value.  This third way of approaching Scripture opens up new understandings and possibilities for ministry!

Are you still not sure about the challenges of looking at the world through binary, black and white lenses?  Look at our country’s election this past year.  Look at the recent election in Great Britain this week!  It was the Labor party over and against the Conservative party.  It was the Democrats over and against the Republicans. The binary way thinking and looking at the world and values has shut down Washington as opposing sides of Congress draw lines against each other.  Today’s elected officials seem to have forgotten how the Founding Fathers understood that American Democracy would only work when both sides could come together and compromise thereby creating a fresh, new way forward. The political term we use is a bipartisan stance worked out through a compromise which can only occur when there is an engaged relationship with the other.[3] The authors of our Constitution seemed to understand either/or thinking would not make our country great.  They assumed our leaders would be virtuous enough, humble enough to come together in a relationship and honorably move forward with an as yet undiscovered new way through a dilemma.

It’s at this point I want to remind us that as Christ-followers, we do not look at the world through binary lenses.  Our Christian faith is built upon a ternary understanding of God and the universe; our view of the world is built upon the Law of Three, i.e. the Trinity. Sadly though, many Christian profess Trinitarian thinking but live a functional binary spiritual relationship with God focusing solely upon God the Father and God the Son, Jesus to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they focus on God the Father and God the Holy Spirit but cut Jesus out as being superfluous. Somehow, we forget the way forward is made possible by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moves us from dualistic thinking of this or that to a both-and-even-more possibility!

We see this in today’s scripture. It was not just God the Father who created the heavens and earth.  The scripture says “God” created, breathed life in the universe.  In Genesis 1.26, the scripture relates that on the sixth day of creation, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Here is one of the first overt references to the Trinitarian Godhead. God did not say, “Let me make humankind in MY image” but instead, “Let’s make people in OUR image.”  And like our text today indicates, it’s the Father and Son manifest in Holy Spirit who broods, floats, relaxes and hovers over the chaos and bringing form and life from a previously empty state of being.

Scholar and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that in this way, the third force, i.e. the Holy Spirit, acts as a midwife for the Father and Son. It acts on the desires of the fullness of God to bring into life something brand new.[4]

The Law of Three and the Trinity is a dynamic process that brings birth, growth, and change.  The interplay and relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit are generative in that together they create something new, a fourth previously unseen way forward! Their interplay at Creation brought forth the universe and all life.  It is inherent in the Law of Three to spin its collective energy outward in ever-widening circles of artistic, creative newness.

The Reverend Bourgeault gives us examples.  When a seed, the earth, and the sun come together, a fourth item is created called a sprout.  When flour, water, and a fire’s heat is added, a fourth is created called bread.  When a plaintiff, a defendant, and a Judge come together, a fourth way is created called a resolution.  When a ship’s sails, keel and helmsman work in synchronicity, a ship’s course is created and sustained.[5] When a proton, a neutron, and electron have interplay, a fourth entity called an atom is formed.[6]  When God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dance together, light emerges and creation is formed. The Law of Three means the whole Christian notion of Trinity is not some ancient theological abstract; on the contrary, when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spins and dances and encounters a church or a person, a fourth way forward presents itself through new life, new energy, or a possibility for new ministry to be born![7]

This past Christmas season, I was sitting on our patio watching a fire in the pit.  There were two logs left and their light grew dim and the crackling sounds were no longer heard.  I’ve learned through years of camping about the law of three.  I’ve seen many fires that dwindle down to two pieces of wood and the fire begins to die out.  What is needed is a third log tossed at an angle onto the two and energy is formed and new flames burst up, more heat is generated, and the crackles and pops begin again.  It’s the Law of Three.[8]

Christian mystics believe the whole universe is held together by the Trinitarian dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  They believe that we need to become re-enchanted with the mysterious Law of Three and the Trinity in order to apply it to all aspects of our lives new options for ministry, for reconciliation, and for healing will reveal themselves to us.

Politically, it reminds us to work together for compromise so that we can generate a fourth new totally unforeseen way that’s beyond liberal and conservative that is indeed called just.

Environmentally, it reminds us to move beyond either believing in climate change or denying climate change whereby we can come together and create a fourth way forward that meets humanity’s needs while ensuring our planet will be available for future generations.

Spiritually, it means we suspend reading our Bibles pre-critically or critically and instead look at what God is actually trying to get across to us in the scripture. Spiritually it means we cease and desist saying some people are more deserving of God’s love while saying certain others are not worthy of grace at all; instead we are called to intentionally express that love of God in ways we never imagined! Spiritually, it means that Christianity’s opposing sides need to work together and generate a fourth winsome and gracious expression of God’s presence in ministry to people who have fallen through the cracks or pushed to the margins because of our own infighting.

Beloved, thanks for hanging in there with me through this very thought-full subject.  My prayer is that as each of us leaves today, we will be thinking about the Trinity in brand new ways. Specifically, I want us to leave and ask ourselves how the Triune God is working in your life this very day? What new thing, new ministry, new relationship is the creative expression of God trying to have you display? What new fourth way forward is God’s Trinity and the Law of three churning up in you?  Let’s pray.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The Message by Eugene Peterson.

[2] Please see http://www.icr.org/article/how-old-earth-according-bible/ accessed on 6/9/2017.

[3] Richard Rohr, with Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance.  The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016), 93.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2013), 45

[5] Ibid., 15-17.

[6] Rohr, 70.

[7] Bourgeault says, “The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension…The first and most important point is that linking the Trinity to the Law of Three adds predicative capacity. It explains why the inherent dynamism that Bruteau calls agape love must create new worlds; why it cannot remain locked up with a great intra-Trinitarian circulation.” Bourgeault, 89.

[8] Retired firefighter and church member, Walter Kahr, reminded me that when learning how to put out fires, firemen and firewomen are told that a fire is made up of three parts: Material, Oxygen, and a heat source. When approaching a fire, the goal is to separate one of these three from the other two.

How to Glorify God in the Tough Times; Acts 7:54-60

stephenSermon:        How to Glorify God in the Tough Times
Scripture:     Acts 7:54-60
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:      First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:             May 14, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Easter

For us to have a deeper appreciation of our scripture Story today, it’s vital for us to know a little about the overall scene. Our Story begins back in Acts 6.  The Church at this point was still located in Jerusalem and the first scene in Acts 6 introduces the necessity and ordination of the first seven deacons who were charged to tend to the everyday care of members of the church while the Apostles were devoted to healing and preaching. One deacon stands out above the others and that is Stephen who is described as full of grace and power.

Stephen began to display wonders and signs among the people and a group of Jews related to the Jews of the Diaspora, in other words, the scattering of Jews after the exile, were among them.  They began challenging Stephen and his teaching saying that he was speaking blasphemous things about God and the Temple. This group began to spread rumors about Stephen and the message of Christ and planted false witnesses in the crowd to stir things up. The crowds grabbed Stephen and took him by force to the Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin, and demanded Stephen be punished.

The High Priest asked Stephen if he was indeed speaking blasphemy against God and the Temple and this begins Stephen’s long biblical and historical defense of God’s interactions with the people of Israel beginning with Abraham and the Patriarchs to Moses and the Tent of Meeting God used to travel around in with the Hebrews in the wilderness. Stephen lectured the religious leaders on the fact that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands but that God created, dwelt and lived anywhere God felt like it. The Jewish prophets spoke on God’s behalf but people refused to listen.  Then Stephen goes and puts his foot in it. He declares, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…They killed those who foretold the Righteous One (i.e. Jesus), and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.  You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

This was the trigger that exploded the religious leaders and crowd’s sensibilities.  It’s at this point we pick up in our scripture today which marks the end of the Jerusalem narrative of the church and begins to move the Christian Story out into the larger world. Also, as emerging church leader Stephen dies, a new leader is introduced who would, ironically, pick up Stephen’s arguments with the Greek-thinking Jews and forever change the course of Church history. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Acts 7:54-60

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.[1]

Mob mentality.  It’s a scary thing to be caught up in one.  I was an R.A. in college and remember how Georgia Southern’s campus exploded with unrest during the American hostage crisis in Iran back in the early 1980s.  One hot afternoon, mobs of people began moving en masse from all the dorms and usually well-collected and mannered people were shouting epithets and rage dragging an Ayatollah’s effigy behind a car. The students used it as an excuse to pour out their stress and rage with liberal amounts of cheap beer. It does not take a lot to cause a mob scene.  All it takes is a little stress mixed in with some righteous indignation, a bit of boredom, and sprinkled with a few well-placed instigators. It does not take long for a crowd to turn into a toxic mess of vented anger.

Stephen, very much like Jesus before him, was caught up in the swirling pot of political, military, economic, cultural and religious turmoil. The Jews were afraid of the Romans.  The Romans kept a wary eye on their Jewish citizens. The Jewish religious leaders were pitted against the Romans who saw Caesar as a god and then there were people like Jesus, followed by Stephen, who declared that the Messiah and Righteous One was already in their midst. There were political and religious splinter groups all vying for control and the undercurrent of distrust and cultural hatred of “the other” was laying the foundation for a brutal war that would break out some thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It sounds all too familiar with our world today.

Did you know that there are 15 countries in the world today that still use lapidation as a form of capital punishment? Lapidation is simply a sanitized way of being stoned to death. Today the accused has his, or in most cases her[2], hands and feet tied and they are placed into a hole buried up to their shoulders. Rocks are thrown first by the witnesses to the alleged crime and then by the rest of the crowd until the person is dead. You see, this way everyone in the community gets to exact the sentence on the guilty one without anyone knowing whose stone it was that actually killed the person. This way your conscience is assuaged because you can say, “It was not my stone that killed them!”  Death by stoning is a horrible, barbaric way to die.[3] Yet, in our Story today, amid this horror, Stephen kept his wits about him.

Stephen shows us how we can glorify God in the direst of situations.  He shows you and me how to keep our head in a world that is all too cultivated for mob mentalities. He does this by glorifying God and this glorifying of God has three distinct parts.

First, Stephen in the midst of the mob and frenzy never took his eyes off the Lord. He stayed true to his convictions and pointed to the power of God displayed by Jesus Christ.  In the midst of the evil swirling about him at his kangaroo court, Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. He kept his eyes on Jesus.

Some have wondered why Jesus was standing and not sitting at the right hand of God in a place of magisterial splendor.  Many believe Stephen saw Jesus standing at the Father’s side because he was about to rush in himself as Stephen’s advocate; Stephen saw Jesus ready to run to his aid.

The second aspect of glorifying God is that even during the moment when the rocks began hitting him, Stephen committed himself to the Christ. Stephen had the long view.  He knew his physical life was only one aspect of living and he realized that through Jesus’ resurrection our life continues in the presence of the Almighty in ways we cannot imagine.  During his pain, amid his crisis, Stephen not only kept his eyes on God but he committed himself to God’s Spirit and cause when he cried, “Lord, receive my spirit.”

This leads us to the third aspect of glorifying God and if we are honest, it may be the most difficult for us to do.  Rocks were pounding him and his last recorded words are, “Do not hold this sin against them.”  It’s so much easier for us to keep our focus on God and to commit ourselves to God than it is to forgive those who are causing us pain in our life.  Stephen’s last words were words of forgiveness to those who were killing him. Stephen was demonstrating the highest expression of agape love and that was his intentional, volitional letting go of any hate or contempt he might have felt.  They say the greatest act of love is to give one’s life for someone else. That may be very true but for the clear majority of us, the greatest act of love we can express is love through the forgiveness of those who have hurt us the most. It’s in the act of forgiving someone else that we are giving them life back – a life that perhaps they did not even know they lost.  Remember that Stephen’s words of forgiveness and release were uttered within earshot of a young man who needed to hear those words whose name was Saul! When we forgive others, we are de-clogging our spiritual arteries by letting the cleansing Spirit of God spread out in our own lives that give us new hope and freedom that withholding forgiveness prevents.

Beloved, what in this life is overwhelming you? What are the mobs of life that are pelting you with rocks? Is it a relationship that has turned south or is abusive?  Is it a job or work conditions that feel unbearable?  Is it an illness that is robbing you of health, financial resources, and hope?  Is it a traumatic event in your life that has crippled you emotionally?  Whatever it is for you, just look to Stephen.

In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he never took his eyes off Jesus.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were at their worst, he once again entrusted himself to God.  In the midst of Stephen’s turmoil, even when things were the worst and as his life was ebbing away, he prayed for the pardon of the ones who were causing him pain.  This, my friends, is how we glorify God even when the world feels as though it has aligned itself against us.

What is overwhelming you right now, my friends? Keep your eyes on Jesus!

What are the rocks of life which are about to knock you unconscious? Even if you do not understand why it is happening to you, once again, commit yourself to God.

Who is it that is killing your spirit because you are still harboring resentment and hatred towards them for what they have done or did not do?  Show them the love that only can emerge from forgiveness because when we let them free of their debt, we become free ourselves!

This week, let’s all be more conscious of glorifying God even when life makes it difficult to do so.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2]Please see https://mic.com/articles/68431/women-around-the-world-are-being-stoned-to-death-do-you-know-the-facts#.uGpMR6zTx. Accessed on 5/12/2017.
[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning. Accessed on 5/12/2017.

Reflection on the third of Jesus’ Seven Last Words: Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother. – John 19:26, 27

Message:      Good Friday Reflection on John 19.26, 27
Text:              When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved    standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!”  Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Preacher:    Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:     First Pres DeLand
Date:            April 14, 2017, Good Friday

Mother Mary, Aunt Mary, and his Anam Cara or soul friend, Mary Magdalene, were standing off some ways from the bloody spectacle of three crucified men. With them was Jesus’ best friend and soul brother, John Zebedee, who appears to have fled Gethsemane the night before at the arrest and ran to the safety and comfort of those who are closest to Jesus – his family and his closest soul sister.  I can’t imagine they slept well that night because of the shock and fear enveloping them.  No doubt, John was pumped for details about all that happened in the Garden hours earlier.

“Did Jesus get hurt?”

“Did anyone stand up for him?”

“Who turned him into the religious officials?”

I can picture John, all shook up, afraid and in the dark about everything that’s happened trying to answer their interrogations.  By this time in the afternoon, their worst fears were becoming reality:  Jesus had been given a death sentence.

So those who had the most intimate emotional connection with Jesus went to see what was happening.  It’s not a sight any parent would want to see of their child.  It’s not a scene best friends would care to witness but the four of them came anyway.  They had to come and see for themselves.  Numb with shock, they stumbled to Golgotha to see with their own eyes what they have heard rumors about from others. This is what they saw.

Three crosses are placed near one another with Jesus impaled on the middle one.  The three men were bloodied, sweaty and struggling to get enough energy to push up on a small board with their nailed feet so they could lift themselves up to breath.  Carrion fowl already smelled the blood and were patiently waiting their turn to swoop down onto the bodies.  Soldiers were using Jesus clothes as barter for their gambling habit under Jesus’ gaze. They could see pieces of skin dangling up under his arms from the beating he received from the Roman whips tipped with bone and rock as he received 39 lashes. The air was full of moaning, crying, taunting and cruel laughter.  In a word, horrific.

And then the unexpected happens.  Head lowered in pain and exhaustion, Jesus lifts his eyes and sees the ones he loves. His heart is stirred.  Love begins swelling up from his gut and tears of relief and joy blur his vision. You see, his mother, Aunt Mary, Mary Magdalene and John believed themselves helpless watching from a distance; after all, what could they do except watch it all unfold?  What they neglected to understand was their simple presence with Jesus on the Cross was their way of saying, “Jesus, we love you” and it was a message Jesus received loud and clear.  During the Son of Man’s darkest hour, he sees that the ones he loves have not forgotten him and their love for him transcended their fears for their own personal safety. In Jesus’ mind, four broken, scared people who dared to join him at the Cross were enough to inspire him, enough to give him hope that all was not done in vain. And there, during the final moments of his life, he once again shows love to others.

“Momma, John is my soul brother and he is now your son.  John, this is my mother and from now she’s your momma.  Take care of her.”

Now it was finished. He could let go now. He has taken care of the last untended detail.  Like a good boy, he is making sure his mother is cared for. And Mary in her own simple way of being present with her son at his death is also taking care of him. He would hold on to that memory to get him through the rest of the day.  Would only our presence tonight do the same thing.  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder
First Pres DeLand
724 North Woodland Avenue
DeLand, FL 32720
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.  All rights reserved.