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Sermon for Sunday 3 May 2020

First Reading                                        Acts 2:42-47

42{The believers} devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Psalm                                                Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. 4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Second Reading                         1 Peter 2:19-25

19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Gospel                                                        John 10:1-10

1{Jesus said to the Jews,} “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Live Forever

Question: what would you be willing to do to be able to live forever?  I’m not talking about eternal life after death.  I’m talking about avoiding death all together in this life.  Human beings, it seems have, always searched for a way to cheat death, even to the point of obsession.  In Hollywood, Florida, there’s a church called the Church of Perpetual Life, and its focus is on extending the human lifespan on this earth for as long as possible.  The church’s motto is “Aging and death can be optional.”  When you stop and think about it, that’s a great marketing slogan for a society that’s rapidly becoming godless!

The Church of Perpetual Life’s symbol isn’t a cross, but a phoenix, the bird in Greek mythology that rose from the ashes and lives on perpetually.  The church’s leader, William Faloon, teaches his congregation about health and age reversal technologies.  To support their ministry, the church sells dietary supplements and a magazine on preventing aging.  And the church supports a cryonics conference.

Cryonics is the practice—completely unproven mind you—of freezing a person’s body and brain for decades, then thawing them out and bringing them back to life when medical science has found a cure for death.  As of 2019, William Faloon’s goal was to build a cryonics chamber in Texas that can hold 10,000 bodies, so its members can be brought back to life sometime in the future.  But these folks aren’t alone!  Silicon Valley in San Francisco is home to the biggest technology companies in the world—corporations like Google, Apple, Facebook and Netflix.  Silicon Valley is also the epicenter of the obsession to live forever.

There are businesses in California that are funded by some of our brightest technology entrepreneurs who are determined in their efforts to find treatments to turn back the clock on our aging cells.  James Strole is the director of the Coalition of Radical Life Extension, an organization which brings together scientists and researchers of what they call “physical immortality.”  He says, “There’s millions of people living today who won’t see death if they choose.”  Their goal of course flies in the face of what the Bible teaches.  In Hebrews chapter 9 we read, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (vs. 27-28).

So what then does it mean when some of the smartest and richest people in the country are investing so much time and money into not dying?  The people leading this research forward that they are doing it for humankind, but even William Faloon admits, “I use my parents as my motivation.  If I were doing it for humanity—well, that is not as urgent.”  When you really think about it, there’s also a bit of narcissism and fear mixed into their efforts.  If you’re young, healthy, smart or successful, why wouldn’t you want to live forever, especially if you could turn back the clock on your aging body?

There was an ancient Greek philosopher named Epicurus whose teachings have become very influential.  In fact, you could say that our society has adopted Epicurus as our societal guru.  Epicurus taught that the pursuit of happiness is the “sole purpose of life.”  I’d say that before this pandemic, our society was determined to live out this philosophy.  And if the news reports coming out about illegal gatherings in Chicago, California and Florida are to be believed, this still might be the case.  But how then do we explain the rising rates of suicide, depression and loneliness if society is so focused on the pursuit of happiness?

In contrast, look at the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, which is located between Tibet and India.  In 1972, Bhutan’s king created a Gross National Happiness Index because he believed the happiness of his people was vitally important to their well-being.  But the people of Bhutan view the path to happiness a little differently than we do.  One of the secrets to happiness, according to their philosophy, is to think about your own death five times a day.  So which philosophy makes the most sense to you: living for your own pleasure or contemplating your own death five times a day—or, perhaps, neither?  Do me a favor and keep that question in mind as we look at our gospel lesson for today.

In today’s passage from St. John, Jesus, it seems, is getting fed up with the Pharisees and the religious scholars.  He believes that their focus on rules and religious traditions is leading people away from God, and away from what really matters in life.  In contrast, Jesus illustrates His point by talking about a good and caring shepherd who defends his sheep against thieves and robbers.  And to clarify that point, Jesus says in verse 10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

In the New Testament, there are three Greek words that refer to life: bios, psuche and zoeBios refers to physical life.  Psuche refers to the soul, the spiritual side of life.  And zoe refers to eternal life, the life that flows from God alone.  When Jesus says that He has come to give us life to the fullest, he uses the word zoe, eternal life.  Now it’s important to note here that Jesus isn’t talking about living forever and never dying a physical death, the Hebrew passage is clear on that point.  He’s talking about living life to the fullest in this world and then living life to the fullest in an even better world beyond the grave.  Jesus is talking about God’s gift given in Jesus’ resurrection, life eternal.

This earthly life certainly offers many pleasures and joys, but it still leaves us hungry for some greater meaning or purpose.  That hunger is a desire to know God.  Our longing for God is part of our DNA.  The writer of Hebrews tells us “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (8:11).  We were created in the image of God.  All the qualities that make up God—holiness, completeness, life in its fullest sense—all these qualities are a part of our makeup.  We were created to know God and to live at peace with Him.  We were created for purposeful work and creativity and relationships.  But sadly, sin corrupted the perfection that God created.

All the blessings we see in the first chapters of Genesis—that’s the life we were made for.  But sin created a gap, an emptiness that causes a sensation that this life is meaningless.  This shouldn’t, however, cause us to lose hope.  We must acknowledge that this life lived for oneself isn’t our true purpose.  We need to use that empty feeling to drive us to look to our God in whose image we were created.  Sara Miles was a chef and journalist living in San Francisco.

Sara was also an atheist and had no interest in religion or “religious nuts,” as she put it.  One day, she wandered into a local Episcopal church while the priest was offering the Lord’s Supper.  Out of curiosity, Miles went up to the altar and received the bread and wine.  And it fed a spiritual hunger in her she didn’t even know she had.  Since her encounter with Jesus in that sacred meal, Sara Miles has made a radical change in her life.  For one thing, she has opened food pantries all over San Francisco.  She’s taking her faith to the streets, ministering to the poor and homeless with food and comfort and the hope she found when she surrendered her life to God.  God didn’t intend for us to waste our lives chasing after lesser pleasures.  Eternal life, both in this world and the world to come, is God’s gifts to us.  And in that gift, we also receive other blessings.

The first blessing we receive is that eternal life frees us from anxiety.Because eternal life will be life in God’s presence, we know we can handle anything that comes our way.  Through Jesus Christ, God gave His life to remove the separation sin caused between us and Him and this loving God wants to spend eternity with us.  In Psalm 16:11, king David envisions living in God’s presence when he wrote, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Anxiety is rooted in fear, and fear drives us to compare ourselves with others and to compete for resources.  Fear drives us to protect our turf and control our circumstances at all costs.  At its root, fear causes us to put our needs first above all else and so we remain in a constant state of anxiety.  Here’s something you might not know.  Hawaiians refer to non-Hawaiians as “haole.”  Haole is a Hawaiian word for “no breath.”

The nickname was created back in the 1820s when European immigrants came to the islands.  The native Hawaiian man explained: “Our forefathers thought the settlers were always in a hurry to build plantations, harbors, and ranches.  To the native Hawaiians they seemed short of breath.”  Always in a hurry to build something bigger or acquire something better—does that sound like a lot of the people we know?  In contrast to the haole, look at the life of the late Bob Pierce, the founder of the Christian relief organization World Vision.  

Through World Vision, millions of people all over the world have been fed, protected, educated and sheltered.  Pierce was once asked how he had created an organization with a worldwide impact.  He said he had prayed, “O God, I give you the right to set the agenda for my life.  From here on out, you’re going to run the show.  And you can change that agenda any time you want.  But I pray that you will be pleased to use me for your glory in any way you see fit.  Amen.”  Bob Pierce’s trust in God set him free from the anxieties of this life.  And many thousands of people have been impacted by his decision to give his life to God’s work.

We exhaust ourselves chasing after comfort and success and validation.  And every pleasure and accomplishment slips through our fingers when we die.  What if we could let all that go and focus our energy and time and resources on loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves?  That’s how a focus on eternal life sets us free from anxiety.  The second blessing we receive in God’s gift of eternal life is that we are also free to be generous.

Now I’m not talking simply about money here.  I’m talking about a generosity of spirit that’s motivated by love.  If God loved us enough to give us His Son that we might have eternal life, then won’t that same God give us all that we need in this life?  Jesus, in Matthew chapter 6 reminds us, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they? (vs. 26).  Knowing that our life belongs to a loving and generous God frees us to live with a generosity of spirit.  Pastor Adam Hamilton’s daughter Danielle and her husband JT once worked at a hospice center for AIDS patients in South Africa.

One day, the hospice staff decided to take the residents out for ice cream.  None of them made much money, and the residents were very poor, so the staff saved up their money for this very special treat.  The closest restaurant that served ice cream was a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  A customer at the restaurant noticed the hospice group and asked about their purpose there.  When Danielle told them about their ice cream trip, the man immediately offered to buy all of the hospice residents some fried chicken too.  Even though the man didn’t appear to have much money himself, he went up to the counter and ordered enough chicken for every resident.  As Hamilton writes, “For most of the residents, this would be the last time they would eat fried chicken and ice cream, but in that moment, there was great joy.”

Generosity is rooted in faith and it overflows in joy.  Who doesn’t want more joy in this life?  This is the kind of life God created us to live.  But joy doesn’t come from winning the biggest chunk of cheese in the rat race.  Joy comes from focusing on the things that are important to God.  A focus on eternal life frees us from anxiety and frees us for generosity.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we don’t have to question God’s existence and His purposes anymore.  God’s purpose is for us to live eternally in God’s presence, where there is peace and joy and rest from all forms of anxiety and want.  That’s what Jesus lived for and what He died for.  Don’t we want to know there’s something worth living for and dying for that’s greater than this ordinary life?  God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah is reassuring: “But those who die in the Lord will live; their bodies will rise again!  Those who sleep in the earth will rise up and sing for joy!  For your life-giving light will fall like dew on your people in the place of the dead! (26:19).


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