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Sermon for Sunday 18 May 2014

FIRST READING Acts 6:1–9; 7:2a, 51–60

Chapter 6 1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
Chapter 7 2a And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. 51 You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 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!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then 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.

PSALM Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16

1 In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness.  2 Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me. 3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; for the sake of your name, lead me and guide me. 4 Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, for you are my tower of strength. 5 Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O LORD, God of truth. 15 My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. 16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
SECOND READING 1 Peter 2:2–10

2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
8 and
“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
GOSPEL John 14:1–14

1 Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

For many of us, as soon as I mention the name Charles Atlas, not only do we know who he is, but what he’s most famous for. Charles Atlas is probably, for those who don’t know the name, best known for bringing body building into the modern culture. However, what you may not know is how it all started and what motivated Mr. Atlas to excel in body building.
More than one story surrounds how Charlie Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano and who legally changed his name after a friend said he looked like Atlas, got his start. Some say he was motivated after a bully kicked sand in his face at the beach, while another says he was motivated because of his lack of ability to stand up for himself. One of the lesser known stories, and probably the more believable, is that when he was a teenager, his parents bought him a dresser mirror that he placed in his bedroom. Before this time, whenever Angelo needed to use a mirror, he went to the bathroom, but there he was only able to see his head and possibly his shoulders. When he got dressed up, he used his parents’ full length mirror in their bedroom. Angelo was happy with his new mirror and out of vanity, he spent untold hours in front of it. As with many people, Angelo tended to be a bit overly self-focused.
One day when he was standing in front of the mirror, Angelo decided to take off his shirt. What he saw disappointed him. His chest was scrawny and his biceps were so thin that he could place his hand completely around one. For him, this was an intolerable situation; he didn’t want to be known as a scrawny weakling. So, at that moment, Angelo Siciliano made a pact with himself; he would work as hard as necessary in order to build up his upper body, so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed in the mirror ever again. To meet his goal, Angelo began a rugged daily regimen of exercise. For several hours, each and every day, he did exercises – push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. Later he began to lift weights – barbells and dumbbells. Next, he bought a special machine with weights, pulleys, and springs which allowed him to exercise even more.
After several months, Angelo again looked in the mirror. There was definite improvement. His chest had grown and his arms were more muscular. The positive results encouraged him, so he doubled his efforts. He increased the difficulty of the exercises, lifted more weights, and then he began to eat only certain foods. He took lots of vitamins as well. After a couple of years of this strenuous exercise program, Angelo again looked in the mirror. He was quite satisfied, more to the point he was elated. His chest was huge and his biceps were so large that two hands couldn’t encircle one. His stomach was the example of a well-defined 6-pack. As he stood there admiring himself, all of a sudden Angelo collapsed. His parents, quite naturally, were concerned and rushed him to the doctor. They thought for certain that it was a case of overexertion, but the doctor, after examining Angelo, said the problem was much more simple. Angelo’s ankles and legs were too weak, they couldn’t support his massive bulk, so he collapsed. Angelo’s problem was that he could only see his upper body in the mirror and that was all he developed.
The story of Angelo Siciliano, or Charlie Atlas as he’s better known, is a good illustration of a problem, way too many of us have – we’re so self-focused that we choose to build up the externals of our life, but we forget about the rock foundation upon which our life must be based. We’re so distracted by the things and allures of this world that we fail to attend to our spiritual health. We shut God out, allowing instead the temporal and temporary things of this life to weaken our spiritual health to the point of collapse. We’re like the house of which Jesus speaks that’s built on sand and is washed away in a storm (Matthew 7:26-27). We need to fully recognize that we must build our house on the rock foundation which is Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As we learned from scripture last week, there are many roads that can be followed, but there’s only one road that leads to salvation, to the Father and to eternal life.
Buddha can’t help us now or in eternity, the prophet Muhammad can’t show us the way, all science can do is prove that the universe was designed by an intelligent Creator, nor can we gain enough knowledge to save ourselves or to ascend on our own; the only gate through which we can enter in is Jesus Christ. As disciples of Jesus, we’re called and challenged to build our life in every aspect on Christ. Yet, these days we seem to be concerned with many things and we work feverishly to accomplish many goals and achieve many accolades, but if we’re not firmly grounded in Christ, we will fall as rapidly and unexpectedly as did Charlie Atlas.
The eschatological discourse of Jesus, in chapters 13-17 of Saint John’s Gospel, presents some of the most profound theology of the fourth evangelist. Specifically, in today’s gospel lesson, we hear in very clear and certain terms that there’s a specific relationship between the Lord and His people. Jesus is the rock foundation from which all that we’ve ever been, are now, and hope to be springs. In a corresponding way to Jesus’ description last week that He is the gate through which we must pass, so today we hear as clearly, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6b). Jesus is the source of our sustenance; He is the path and guide to the Father and salvation. We must heed the call of Christ and make certain that it’s His lead we follow, His word we hear, and His message that we proclaim – a task made that much more difficult in a world that doesn’t appreciate nor greatly value the message of fidelity and service that the Lord proclaims. The world is like the religious leaders in our Acts reading, they cover their ears to the Biblical message choosing instead to stone the messengers in an attempt to drown out and silence the truth.
Jesus’ response to Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where we are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5), demonstrates the centrality of Christ’s role in all that we do and say. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” says Jesus, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yes, Jesus is the way; we say that with our lips, but as Jesus accused the religious leaders of His day, our hearts are far from believing it. It seems that we willingly choose other routes; other paths that include detours, or paths which seem easy and clear but in reality are laden with obstacles, hurdles, and potholes. These other routes seems so easy and, thus, we take the path of least resistance. We must not forget, however, how clear Jesus was in the Sermon on the Mount, as reported by Saint Matthew, “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
In our hearts, we know that Jesus is the only way, the true gate that leads to life, but often there seems to be a disconnect between our hearts and heads, for too often we “think” there’s a better, faster, or more profitable way and make the mistake of taking these roads. On the surface, the alternative paths that we take may seem the best option at the time, but we suffer from tunnel vision or we put on blinders that don’t allow us to see the bigger picture. We live in and concentrate on the here and now; we seldom look down the road or see what the long-term effects of our actions may bring. The common contemporary desire for instant results and quick satisfaction tempts us to take shortcuts and other paths that, in the end, are really detours and dead ends that lead to destruction; they lead us in all sorts of directions, but not along the path of life. We must truly take to heart Jesus’ words, that He is the One and only way that leads to salvation and eternal life. And Jesus’ words to us today give us more; that He is also the truth.
Truth is another area that the world wants to make relative in order to send people down the various other paths that lead us away from God. Truth is one of the central subjects in philosophy. It’s also one of the largest. Truth has been a topic of discussion in its own right for thousands of years. Moreover, a huge variety of issues in philosophy relate to truth, either by relying on ideas about truth, or implying views about truth. Jesus tells Thomas that He is the truth, but this reality also seems to allude our consciousness. We’ve become very adept at convincing ourselves that there are numerous truths, and varied understandings of the Christian message. Yet many distort the truth taught in the Bible to fit their own situation and agendas.
But there’s only one truth, and that truth is the message which Jesus clearly articulates in the gospels. Some may center Biblical truth on the “Golden Rule,” love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. The problem is, this view refuses to acknowledge sinful behavior at the risk of being seen as unloving, bigoted or out of touch with societal norms. Others may gravitate toward the challenge of Matthew 25 where, in His apocalyptic discourse, Jesus tells His disciples that we will be judged on how we’ve treated our least brothers and sisters, for by our actions toward them we demonstrate our actions toward Christ. Again, the problem with this very narrow view of Biblical truth is that this makes the gospel message purely social. Salvation is relegated to actions that depend on us, not on God’s free gift of grace. Yet still others may say that Jesus’ central message is, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). All of these ideas, however, find their roots in the message to love. And this view of God’s Truth ignores the commands of Jesus that sometimes God’s law cuts, it exposes our sinful natures and in the world view this seems unloving. Jesus is indeed complete love and, therefore, this is the truth that He brings. God’s love in and through us sometimes means that we must speak the truth in love, and oftentimes it’s a truth the world doesn’t want to hear. The world forwards so many varied ideas on what it means to love others, but so many of these leads us to focus on ourselves and not on God. Jesus is the truth which is love and, thus, if we desire to follow, we must exercise the love which He exemplified even when telling the truth means refusing to condone sinful behavior. Lastly, Jesus calls Himself the life, the only life that truly should have meaning for us.
Fads, gurus, easy-fix solutions, self-help ideas, and a host of other ways of life challenge the polity of Jesus’ reign, but there’s only one life that we should follow. Too often we get off track and follow people, ideas, ideologies, and even institutions that we perceive will bring us life. But, like the false roads that we sometimes traverse, so, too, those who preach a way of life that seems easy, less burdened, and apparently attractive only lead us away from the one and true life that we must always seek. Jesus is the One whose salvific death and resurrection has true meaning for us. There’s no other life that can offer us salvation, the free gift to those who believe, yet it’s the prize which we seemingly refuse to value more than the things of the earth, when we consider how easily we’re swayed away from this one and only life of truth. The reality is that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; He’s the font for the Father. The Lord goes further and tells His apostles that if they have seen Him they’ve seen the Father.
The truth of this statement forces us, in our contemporary context, to go one step further and declare that if we, the presence of Christ in our world, are true disciples, then we must take up the cross and follow Jesus’ lead, as did those first disciples. We must do our part, day-by-day to bring Christ’s message to the world. We must not shy away from this basic call of discipleship with the excuse that we’re too busy, not qualified, or worse yet, we don’t have the time. How will the world know the correct path to follow, that Jesus truly is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that He’s the one who brings us to God and eternal life, if we, His contemporary disciples don’t show the proper way and lead by example? The Christian life brings us many privileges, but with these wonderful benefits comes a myriad of responsibilities that we cannot shirk from if we’re to find life with God.
We cannot bury our heads in the sand with the hopes that God won’t see and we cannot claim incompetence with the hope that others will take up the slack and carry our share of the burden. The absolute need to carry our share of the burden as we follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth and Life is dramatically portrayed in a little story: Once in a far-off land there was a great king whose dominion extended far and wide. His power and authority were absolute. One day, as events would happen, a young man, a commoner, committed a grave offense against the king. In response the king and his counselors gathered together to determine what should be done. They decided that since the offense was so grave and had been committed by a commoner against someone so important as the king, the only punishment that would satisfy justice was death. The king’s son, the crown prince, however, interceded on the young offender’s behalf – his best friend. The prince spoke with his father and the counselors; the debate grew rather heated. In the end the king declared, “The offender must pay a price for his offense. I decree that he must carry a heavy burden up Temple Mountain. If he survives the ordeal he shall live!”
The prince again interceded for his friend. He knew the burden of which his father spoke was the weight of death and he knew his friend wouldn’t be able to carry it. Thus the prince declared, “Royal blood has been offended, therefore only royal blood can pay the price.” So the prince shouldered the heavy burden himself, and with his friend trailing behind him, he began the ascent of the mountain. The task was very difficult. The higher the prince climbed the heavier the burden became. The prince slipped and stumbled several times, but he always managed to right himself and keep going. When the two friends first saw the summit, their goal, the prince collapsed from sheer exhaustion. He said to his friend, “In order for justice to be served, the price must be paid.” The young man understood the prince and, thus, he shouldered the burden himself and, now with the prince following, managed to climb the rest of the way to the summit. When the two friends reached their goal, the prince, with his last ounces of strength, lifted the burden high over his head and then he died.
The king, observing all these events from below, declared, “Justice has been completed.” Then with his great power he returned his son to life. The prince, now returned to life, said, “Not so, not yet. Justice has not been served. Royal blood received help along the way!” The king had to agree. He pardoned the young offender and the two best friends lived happily ever after.
Like the commoner in the story who followed the prince, we’re called to follow Christ, who will shoulder our burdens, but we must do our share. He will bring direction, light, and sustenance to our life, if we follow and are willing to lead others along a similar path. The challenge before us today is which path do we follow; the various and easy paths of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction that the world offers and points us down, the paths that ultimately lead to destruction? Or do we choose the narrow rugged path that leads to eternal life? The question we must honestly ask ourselves is, do we firmly believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and are we willing to point others to the Lord, even when it means speaking the truth in love at the expense of possibly offending others? In so many ways, this is a life and death question. One last thought.
The narrow path we’re called as disciples of Jesus to follow also includes our commitment to God in our personal lives of prayer and Bible study as well as our commitment here at church. Are we willing to set aside our desires and our agendas to regularly attend worship services, teach Sunday school, serve on committees or help with the different events here at church? Discipleship means following the teachings and example of Jesus and His call is to take up His cross and follow. But the truth of shouldering the burdens of the gospel is that Jesus promised that His yoke is easy and His burden is light and the result of choosing the narrow way is salvation and eternal life.

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