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Sermon for Sunday 8 May 2016

FIRST READING Acts 1:12-26

12Then {the disciples} returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. 15In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16“Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and “‘Let another take his office.’ 21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.


PSALM Psalm 133

1Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity! 2It is like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, 3Upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe. 4It is like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the hills of Zion. 5For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: life forevermore.


SECOND READING Revelation 22:1-20

1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 6And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” 7“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” 8I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, 9but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.” 10And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” 12“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” 14Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 16“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” 17The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. 18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. 20He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


GOSPEL John 17:20-26

{Jesus said,} 20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”


We’re now in the midst of baseball season so I thought you might enjoy a story I read recently about the former Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller and Minnesota Twins outfielder Denard Span. It seems these two players from different eras have something rather odd in common: Believe it or not, both of these men, during baseball games, hit their mothers in the stands with a foul ball. Feller hit his mom in 1939 which broke her collarbone and Span hit his mom during a spring training game in 2010. Fortunately, both moms made full recoveries.
That’s an interesting way to welcome you on this Mother’s Day, isn’t it? No sentimental piety here. I’m kidding, of course. Today is the day that’s been set aside specifically to honor our mothers. Mothers make many sacrifices for their families and we give God thanks for each and every one of them. As someone has said, “The hand that rocks the cradle usually is attached to someone who isn’t getting enough sleep.”
Let’s face it, it’s not easy being a Mom, just ask mine! I gave my mom a tough go at it even if I didn’t hit her with a foul ball. Maybe you can relate to one particular Mom who wrote to Reader’s Digest. She says it had been a rotten morning. Her three kids were wired and driving her crazy. Counting to 10 wasn’t cutting it, so to release the pent-up frustration, she walked into her bedroom closet, shut the door and screamed! Apparently it worked. Afterward she said she felt much better. Then, ready to face the rest of the day, she opened the door and was greeted by three terrified faces. “Mom,” said her five-year-old. “I told you there was a monster in that closet!” My bet is that those three youngsters stayed away from that closet for a long, long time.
Having observing Terry over the years I can appreciate just how hard it is to be a mom, even when you have perfect angels like we have. Another thing I know for a fact, is that being a mom is the single most important job in the world. It’s our moms, with the help from our dads, to whom God entrusts our care until we’re able to make it on our own.
Our lesson for the day comes from the Gospel of John. The setting is still Maundy Thursday and after the symbolic washing of His disciples’ feet, Jesus prays what has come to be known as His “High Priestly Prayer.” It’s a rather lengthy prayer, in which Jesus first prays for Himself; then for the disciples. In the final portion of His prayer, He also prays for future believers.
Listen again to how this portion of Jesus prayer begins: “My prayer is not for them alone . . .” Here He’s referring to His disciples. “My prayer isn’t for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message . . .” That, of course, is us. Christ is praying for His disciples and He’s praying for those of us who will be reached through the disciples’ witness. In the first generation of Christians all who believed in Christ did so through the witness of the apostles, whether directly or indirectly. And, that chain of believers continues even to this day. Christ prays for all who believe because of the testimony of those first faithful saints. Which is the first insight we find in today’s lesson: When Jesus prays, He prays for us. I find it reassuring to know that you and I are included in His prayer.
The great Scottish preacher Robert McCheyne put it this way, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He’s praying for me.” I don’t know about you but that’s an incredible piece of information: Christ prays for us. If we were to turn over to the epistle to the Hebrews, we would learn that Christ is still interceding with the Father in our behalf. We read in chapter 4: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (14-16).
As children of God, this should be incredibly good news. It’s comforting to know that when we bring our requests to God, Christ is right alongside us, interceding in our behalf. Pastor Melvin Newland tells a powerful Mother’s Day story that comes out of World War II and the horrific holocaust which took the lives of millions of people. It’s the true story of Solomon Rosenberg and his family.
Solomon Rosenberg, his wife, their two sons and Solomon’s mother and father were arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp. It was a labor camp, and the rules were simple: As long as you could do your work, you were permitted to live. When you became too weak to do your work, then you were exterminated.” Solomon Rosenberg watched his mother and father marched off to their deaths, and he knew that next would be his youngest son, David, because David had always been a frail child. Every evening Rosenberg came back into the barracks after his hours of labor and searched for the faces of his family. When he found them they would huddle together, embrace one another, and thank God for another day of life.
One day Rosenberg came back and didn’t see those familiar faces. He finally discovered his oldest son, Joshua, in a corner, huddled, weeping, and praying. He said, “Josh, tell me it’s not true.” Joshua turned and said, “It is true, Poppa. Today David was not strong enough to do his work. So they came for him.” “But where is your mother?” asked Mr. Rosenberg. “Oh Poppa,” he said, “When they came for David, he was afraid and he cried. Momma said, ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, David,’ and she took his hand and went with him.”
It’s a sad story of a mother’s love for her little boy. Now I’d like you to transfer that image to yourself and Christ, with Christ in the role of that mother. Fearfully yet confidently, (Heb. 4:16) you approach the throne of God. But why fearfully? Because we know that we are both sinners and saints and we know that we’re not all God means for us to be. We have no right, except through Christ, to petition God for His love and mercy. Yet we approach God’s throne confidently because alongside us is One who has volunteered to stand with us, giving us comfort and confidence.
Jesus reassures us that we can come to God as any child can come to a loving parent. We can pray, according to Thomas G. Long, “not as outsiders, but as God’s children, tenderly, honestly, and confidently. In our secret, whispered prayers, we’re known so well that God, like a loving parent listens with their heart to their children, can finish our sentences.” We can confidently come to the Father knowing that Christ prays for us and all who believe in His name. That’s the first insight that braces our hearts.
The second insight we find in this passage is that Jesus makes a specific request in our behalf: He prays for our unity. This is where we draw our strength: we’re bound together with one another and with God. Listen again to His words, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . .” These are very important words: that all of them may be one.
Pastor and author David Jeremiah says that his church once built a ministry upon what they called the Triple Cord Prayer Ministry. “Take a piece of string and you can snap it with little effort; but entwine it with two other cords and it will withstand all your efforts to break it. Together, we’re greater than the sum of our parts. “This is a godly principle at the very center of how God works in the world,” says Jeremiah. “He works through people intertwined together, even with all the messy knots and entanglements of our being involved together. Alone, we are so limited; together, we can forge movements that change world history.”
A pastor one evening was having dinner in a restaurant and happened to sit next to a young couple. He began to talk with them about their religious experience, how they felt about religion. They were a deeply committed young couple; they loved the Lord very much. They were Roman Catholic and talked about their concern for Christian unity and how in Jesus Christ all of us have been made one.
As they talked, the woman reached into her purse and took out a card. She said that it was a portrait of Jesus that illustrated the meaning of Christian unity in a powerful way. Her card was very wrinkled; obviously she had had it for a long time and had looked at it a great deal. As you looked at this picture at arm’s length, you could see an ordinary picture of Jesus, but if you held it up really close, you could see that this portrait of Jesus was composed of forty-eight different faces. And there were all kinds of people: They were young and old, black and brown and yellow and white, male and female, all kinds of human expression were right there in that painting. We too have a picture like that in the Narthex. The likeness of Jesus is made up of the people of Bethel.
In praying for us, not only did Christ carry us in His heart before the Father, but He makes some special requests. The first of these is for our unity. A divided church, in many ways is a scandalous affront to the uniting work that Jesus did on Calvary by bringing us into a relationship with God the Father and ultimately bringing us into relationship with each other. That’s why we’re known as the body of Christ. The unity that He desires for His church is the same kind of unity He has with the Father. “The real church is a body of men and women united to each other because they are united to Christ.”
With that portrait in the Narthex in mind, listen again to Jesus’ words, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message [our message] that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . .” This brings us to the third insight to be gleaned from this passage. Our unity as the body of Christ is our primary witness to the world to the truth of Christ. “May they also be in us,” Jesus prayed, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . .”
How many here remember a folk song that was popular in many churches in the 60s? It was composed by Peter Scholtes and it went like this, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.” The chorus went like this: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The content of this little song comes directly from this prayer by Jesus. If we’re to fulfill our obligation as disciples of Christ, the first thing we need to do is love your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a family, His family. And Christ is the head of our family. We are in Him as He is in the Father.
It reminds me of an inspiring film from the 1990s titled, Mr. Holland’s Opus. Those who have seen the film know it’s about Glenn Holland, a musician and composer who takes a job as a high school band director to pay the rent so that, in his “spare time,” he can strive to achieve his true goal–to create his opus, his greatest piece of music. Soon, however, he becomes overwhelmed by his teaching job and the needs of his family (including an infant son who is deaf) and has very little time to work on his masterpiece. As any teacher can attest, he worked long hours, he dealt with difficult students, but, in spite of his best efforts, the band didn’t sound very good. Nevertheless, despite the apparent lack of success, he comes to believe this is where he’s supposed to be. And as the years unfold the joy of sharing his contagious passion for music with his students becomes his new definition of success.
At the end of the movie we find an aged Mr. Holland fighting in vain to keep his job. The board has decided to reduce the operating budget by cutting the music and drama programs. After thirty years, Mr. Holland is forced into retirement. As the movie winds down, Mr. Holland returns to his classroom to retrieve his belongings. It’s a few days after school has let out for summer vacation. As Mr. Holland, his wife, and their now grown-up son, Cole, are cleaning out the last of his belongings from his old classroom, they hear music coming from the auditorium. To his amazement he discovers in the auditorium a capacity audience of former students and teaching colleagues and a banner that reads “Goodbye, Mr. Holland.” His students have planned a surprise assembly in his honor. In that assembly they play the opus he never had published, the opus that had been his original passion.
The surprise emcee of the event is the state governor, who many years before was a discouraged clarinet player in Mr. Holland’s music class. She says, “Mr. Holland had a profound influence in my life and yet I get the feeling that he considers a great part of his life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his, and this was going to make him famous and rich (probably both). But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure, but he’d be wrong. Because I think he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame.”
Looking at her former teacher, the governor gestures with a sweeping hand and continues, “Look around you. There’s not a life in this room that you haven’t touched, and each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. And we are the music of your life.”
It’s a beautiful film and I know that the analogy is imperfect, but we need to know that we are Christ’s opus. He gave His life for the express purpose of bringing into being this group of people. On the night before He was crucified, Christ prayed for us. He prayed that we might be unified as His body. This is where we draw our strength during times of need, and this is our best way of witnessing to the truth that Christ is alive and at work in the world: “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Today is Mother’s day so in closing I’d like to honor my mom by saying this: it brings me great comfort to know that my mom prays for me each day. And how do I know this? I’ve heard her. So thank you mom!

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