Sermon: All Saints, Sunday November 5, 2017
St Petri Psalm 34:1-10,22 1 John 3:1-3 We are God’s children Matthew 5:1-12 The beatitudes
Revelation 7:9-17 9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ 11 All the angels were standing round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’ 13 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’ 14 I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore, ‘they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,”[a] nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; “he will lead them to springs of living water.”[b] “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[c]’
With Rodney Rosenzweig’s unexpected death and funeral this week I found myself reflecting again on funerals. How often I have stood with others around graves and pondered what life and death are really about.
We stand around the grave as the coffin sits suspended for our final words of thanks, respect and prayer before it descends into the ground…. And there is a moment to think.
This is the end. This is final. This is the sting of death. Like a bee sting at a picnic, it interrupts my life. It is uncomfortable, even painful. Because of the story and the love, it hurts. It is multi-layered. Experience tells me that some don’t leave this graveside with comfort and peace. Some leave with regret and a lot of pain. Whatever the case, there is no coming back from this moment for the one we love or for those of us left behind to keep on living.
And then there is a moment of deep questioning. What becomes of this loved one? What becomes of me? What becomes of human beings? What are human beings, and is God really mindful of us?
Some say no. If this is how it ends, then either rail against God if he even is, or, just give in to this death and give up on God.
Shall we rail against a distant God who is either some watchmaker who sets the world going but now is not involved and does not spare us the pain of this? Or should we rail against a powerless God who can’t stop this inevitable end and its pain?
If so, how do we rail? How do we protest?
Some say we should make the most of everything before this comes. Live life to full according to yourself.
This can be done in a couple of ways. One is to the way of endless busyness and the pursuit of valued items and achievements. Accumulate, consume, use, benefit, build self and self-things for self. In a more noble form, build for those close. Work, accumulate, establish, set up the kids and the family for the future with this life you have, so when this time comes for your grave, they will continue on with things.
The other way to protest is to simply give up on God. If the sum of my life will be in that little dash between the date of birth and date of death on my headstone, then what was all the hard work, the accumulation and consuming, the ticking off the bucket list the patience in trouble, the joy and everything else about me mean anyway? It all seems to come to nought… This is the way of resignation to the all-conquering forces of nature and any hope for the Divine.
I have met these responses in many people. I have found them within myself at times. Death’s dark vale has its effect, especially when the coffin is to be lowered into the ground.
What will bring respite? What will change the game, not only raise the spirit but actually change my body and spirit when the Pit looms large?
What if instead of going down into the grave someone actually came up out of the grave? What if a dead man did that? What of a dead man lifted off the pall on the coffin? More to the point, what if the person who sprang up from the grave for all to see was a real person still – a living, breathing human being…still? And what if the person was still so human as to eat fish, drink water and have scars on his body that another man could touch. And most importantly, what if this once dead man is alive and still speaks to us now – at the grave and right here?
I feel my body and soul rising……
I am interrupted by a stunning new possibility. It may be possible to rise from my grave? That box and that hole or curtain may not be the last word on my life or anyone else’s life. Death may not be the end of my loved one, the end of me or any human being. If a human being has come up from the grave, then maybe we all can? The grave may not be the most complete thing, the dead end it seems to be.
But who and how and can I believe this?
No and yes. No, you cannot make this belief up from your own thinking. But yes, you can possess this belief if received as a gift from above – a gift from that one who sprang up from the ground with scars and words and enlightening power; a gift from the many who have followed in his footsteps and have trampled down death in his power and have been gathered to him in wonderful light and life. Could you receive this gift of faith in the human Jesus crucified and risen for love of the loveless, and life for the lifeless on this All Saints Day?
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
The Lamb is the man with scars: The Lamb is now the Shepherd of his vast community that exists beyond their death. The throne is what he received for his crowning work – the breaking of death’s strong bands over you.
Here the true Paschal lamb we see
Whom God so freely gave us
He dies on that cursed tree
So strong his love to save us!
(Martin Luther Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands”)
This great death and rising, this great assembly and singing is now, not only future.
So let us keep the festival
Where the Lord has invited us
Christ himself the joy of all
The sun that warms and lights us
(Martin Luther Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands”)
Despite the grave and the desperation we sometimes feel, we live in the feast of the palms in this vast crowd. We wear the white baptismal robe drenched in his sacrificial blood by virtue of his grace and power and decision alone. We are his holy ones because he has made us his holy ones.
We still have to stand around graves and watch coffins with loved ones lowered, but the tenor of this is so very different than before. The Lamb, the throne, the multitude of people from everywhere and every type are with us. They are the great cloud of witnesses urging us on to our risen end – not in the ground or behind the curtain but around the throne and the Lamb and the song.
The Lamb speaks as the coffin is lowered and the people feel death but are not overcome by it… This is who we are: Saints, holy ones in Jesus…. And this is our now and our never ending;
‘they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,”[a] nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; “he will lead them to springs of living water.”[b] “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[c]’
This is our life in Jesus and it is so much better when the grave is not final!
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practise.’
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’
31 They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.’32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household.
In the greatest victory ever told – God’s Story, God’s plan to draw all people back to himself kicks into high gear as the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin and draws them into the love and acceptance of the risen and ascended Jesus. Jesus is still on the move with his community on the move.
This is the time of the New Covenant where the elderly and the young dream dreams and the Good Shepherd gathers and tends his people in a radically close way – his Spirit in his people, his life in their living, his Word on their lips, his love in their hearts – and it really does change the loveless, idolatrous, chasing after the wind world in real time. These are the Acts of Holy Spirit more than the Acts of the Apostle’s.
A living breathing witness of the power of the good news of God’s acceptance and love in the resurrection of Jesus is that man Saul who is renamed “Paul”. That Jailor and his whole family, including children receive the same gift of new joy and hope in baptism. They join the millions who have known the transforming resurrecting love of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am one of them too. When Jesus busted me out of my self-orientated and filled self, and the Spirit renewed by faith in Jesus as a teenager, I had a instinct to read the Bible. But, I had no idea where to start. Some wise mentor told me to read the Book of Acts. I am glad they did. I love it. It is a story of God changing the known world, one person, one household, one community at a time. There are shipwrecks and floggings, close escapes and immense faith in Jesus in the face of persecution and conflict caused by the gospel. there is hardly any prayer for the Lord to get them out of trouble but prayer to help them all bear faithful witness in their trouble! That’s faith!
Maybe this early word shaped me more than I know because all my adult Christian journey I have been keenly connected and most interested in the mission of God’s Spirit at work among everyday people wherever we have lived. The mission to share the love and hope of Jesus drives me. We have moved states and countries responding to the Lord’s call to love people in speak and do seeds of the good news. We will do this all our lives until the day for rest finally comes.
I want to be a part of Jailors’ being set free to be fully human and fully alive. I want to be part of whole households coming to faith in the grace, beauty and peace of the risen Jesus. I want to be part of a community that wants to be part of these things. I long to be part of a community of people who are not wanting to be a better club or a larger church for the sake of it, or only want more people present in worship services on their terms, I long to be a part of a community of Jesus’ people who want to love in word and deed and trust the Spirit for his converting, changing, transforming work in people’s lives. I have found it here at St Petri for sure.
“Those whom you seek to change you must first love – and they must know it”
How about you? What drives you? Who do you love? What do you love? What and who do you want to change? What do you imagine to be the best in life? What determines your decisions and directions overall? What are you giving your life in pursuit of? Is it worth it when you hear what you hear in this account of the greatest missionary the world has ever know – not Paul, but the Holy Spirit!
Now, not everyone is called to be a Paul or Apollos or Barnabas or Timothy or Peter or Silas. Not everyone is called to move around a lot or lead a community or an organisation, or shepherd Christian communities. Some are. But we Christians are all called to bear witness to who Jesus is in our lives in words when appropriate and in how we go about business, school, sport, marriage, parenting…. all the time.
Why is that so? Because of those words of Jesus we hear today;
“…everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44b)
It is still true. Everything he has promised in his grand Story of seeking the world he loves must be and is still being fulfilled in our time and place within his new community on planet earth. He is faithful and he will accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished through his people, the church. Our fruitfulness as a person of faith or a whole community of faith is not dependent only on us. Jesus is at work and the Spirit is on the move always.
The issue is whether or not we desire to devote ourselves to this work of God in the world. It is easier to stay distant. It costs less personally and in every other way. It is much more comfortable to just view church like a art gallery – you come, enjoy the good art and go without ever really engaging in who painted the picture of crafted the sculpture.
It is much more comfortable to view the church as a show or a moment that meets my needs for the week. We come, we sing, we pray and we go home and wait for another 7 days until we can ‘be spiritual’ again because someone said this is what we should do.
I see no comfortable life in the Book of Acts but I do see immense joy. Can you imagine seeing that Jailor and his whole clan be baptised in their house that day? Can you imagine hearing Paul and the others speak the good news among the military personal, the city elites, the women down by the creek and see people coming back for more because the news is too good to be true at first?
In all the discomfort of nights in storms at sea, unjust and violent treatment, malicious talk discrediting you, living with only temporary comforts, being regarded as an imposter or a enemy of civilised and scientific society seemed worth it for those early people of the gospel.
As a long-term community of faith, our perennial problem is getting lost in the comfort; particularly in the West, and maybe especially in the beautiful and prosperous land of this great place. As we stay in our own views, our own patterns and desires and wants, maybe we become like traveling salesmen and women who are trying to sell tickets to a place we have never been. Our witness is inauthentic because it has cost us little personally, and people know that.
Friends, like these first Christians and the many since; all the saints in glory, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 10) urging us on, I want to get to that final day when I meet my Lord face-to-face and know that he has run his eye over my life, and with all my weaknesses and mistakes and sin, still hear him say, like he has to all those who have finished the race and rest with him, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.
I want you to experience the joy that day and this day – the joy of resting in the Shepherd’s loving kindness and power to make your life count more than it could ever count without his beating heart in yours.
So, we seek the Spirit’s renewing presence as we hear his Words today and marvel at what he can do with an angry man, a scared jailor, little children in a house, whole cities, whole countries and his whole world.
And we pray. Spirit of Jesus burn in us. power us and shape us so that we bear faithful witness to who we are in the gospel around here and keep doing so until our day comes and we are home with all the saints.
Chapter 29, paul’s mission
Timeless Truth: The gospel spreads to the civilized world.
Chapter Summary (Have someone in your group read the summary section.)
Saul began his career as a radical Jewish scholar who was so convinced the Christians were wrong that he had them imprisoned and stoned. After an encounter with the resurrected Jesus he became a Christ-follower. Saul became Paul (his Greek name) who proclaimed Christ to the Jews first and also to the Gentiles. Led by the Holy Spirit, the believers in their home base of Antioch in Syria commissioned Paul and Barnabas and sent them out as missionaries to spread the news that Jesus the Messiah is raised from the dead. Their first missionary journey took them to the island of Cyprus where they encountered a Jewish sorcerer who opposed them and a Roman proconsul who embraced the gospel. They set sail for the region of Galatia (present south-central Turkey). They were invited to preach in the synagogue in Antioch and, after an initial favorable reception, they faced persecution so they turned their sights toward the Gentiles.
Paul was joined by Timothy, Silas, and eventually Luke for his second missionary journey. They visited many cities in Macedonia, including Philippi where a church was begun in Lydia’s home. The evangelists were beaten and thrown in jail where their faith convicted not only their jailer, but apparently the other prisoners as well. Many Jews and Greeks from Thessalonica believed before Paul and Silas were sent away for their own protection. Paul then met Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth where he was again opposed by the Jews. But Gentiles believed, so Paul stayed and ministered there for about a year and a half. He also wrote letters to these churches to teach and encourage them. He wrote the Thessalonians to encourage them to continue to be the model of Christianity that they had become in expectation of the Lord’s return.
After returning to his base of operations in Antioch, Paul set out on his third journey. As he strengthened the churches in the Galatian region, Apollos showed up in Ephesus where he met Priscilla and Aquila. He was a powerful speaker and strong disciple, but needed further teaching. Paul arrived in Ephesus, a hotbed of pagan idolatry, and as he began teaching in the synagogue, most Jews rejected his message. He stayed more than two years teaching both Jews and Greeks. Many people from the region came to hear him as the word spread. Some of the Ephesians believed and left their idols and witchcraft in exchange for a new life in Christ. This did not set well with the idol artisans who staged a riot to drive Paul out of town. While in Ephesus, he penned letters to churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Rome, though he had not yet visited there.
The Corinthian church had enjoyed a who’s who of early church leaders. This privilege should have prodded them onto Christian maturity but instead they chose sides like children on a playground. Paul chastised them for their divisiveness, corrected their immorality, and answered questions that they had about spiritual gifts. They needed to practice sacrificial love for one another. Some were even denying the resurrection so Paul gave them a remedial lesson on the essentials of the gospel and the hope of a future resurrection. The Galatian churches were confused by Jewish Christians who insisted they practice the Jewish ceremonial rites. Paul’s letter is a masterpiece on Christian liberty as he defended justification by faith alone. Paul’s pastoral desire to minister to the believers in Rome prompted him to write a letter to convey the foundations of the Christian faith. In spite of every form of opposition, the word of God could not be contained. God sovereignly saw to it that obstacles became opportunities for Paul and others to take the gospel “even to the ends of the earth.”
Icebreaker Question: What do you like best about the church you attend?
God set apart Saul (Paul) and Barnabas for foreign mission work (p. 407) to help fulfill the mandate to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Review the list of missionaries supported by your church. Read about each and pray for the needs that are listed for each one. (Bring photos and ministry descriptions of missionaries supported by your church.)
What differences do you find in Paul’s message to the Jews in the synagogue (p. 408-409) as compared to his message to the Gentiles (p. 411, 413)? Discuss applications we might make today for reaching different people groups with the same gospel.
Compare the conversions of Lydia and the jailer at Philippi (p. 412, 413). What differences do you find? What similarities?
What makes the Church in Thessalonica “a model to all the believers” (p. 416-417; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-2:8) and what application can we make for our church if we want to be known as a model church?
What problem seems to be at the root of the divisions and quarrels in the Church at Corinth? (p. 424-425, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:1-11) Do you see any lessons here for our church?
Read 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12:3-8, and Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16. Why is the human body a good metaphor for the church and how does it relate to spiritual gifts?
According to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, does freedom from the law grant freedom to sin (p. 431, Galatians 5:13-26)? What are some results of living by the Spirit?
What is the relationship between righteousness and faith and why do you suppose Paul used Abraham to prove his point? (Hint: The Jews placed their trust in keeping the Law and the fact that they had been circumcised.)
Of all the books in the Bible, Paul’s letter to the Romans most clearly outlines a pattern we can follow to lead a person to Christ. It shows man’s lost condition and makes clear what we must do to receive what God has done to correct our sad condition. This collection of verses has often been called “the Romans Road to salvation.” Trace the following verses, perhaps even marking them in your Bible. Romans 3:23 à 3:10-11 à 6:23 à 5:8 à 10:9-13 à 5:1, 8:1, 8:38-39. In 25 words or less, what are the essentials of the gospel? (Hint: Review 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.) How do you think the Romans Road could help you share your faith in the future?
In the time remaining ask your group members to share any of their personal reflection insights from their journal entries.
Chapter 30, paul’s final days
Journal your answers to these questions as you read through the chapter this week. You may wish to read one day and journal the next, or spread the questions over the whole week.
Paul said to the elders in Ephesus, “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (p. 440, Acts 20:13-35). List several ways a shepherd is a good metaphor for the role of an elder and why it’s important to remember that the church belongs to God. Even if you are not an elder, how do the passages apply to you?
Review Paul’s personal testimony that he gave to the Jews from the steps of the barracks (p. 442-443, Acts 21:37-22:21). What pattern in Paul’s example might help you articulate your own testimony?
Paul was wrongly accused by his enemies, just as Daniel and Jesus had been. How did each of these men respond to false accusations and what can you learn from them? How might you respond when confronted with anger about your Christian beliefs?
Which unlikely situations did Paul use as opportunities for evangelism in this chapter? What are some unlikely situations in your own life that can be used as opportunities to evangelize?
Review Ephesians 2:1-10 found in the second paragraph of page 453. Make a “before and after” list of those things that are true of all people before salvation and after salvation. Name at least three outwardly observable ways that you can apply these truths to your life because you are in Christ. Now that I am in Christ, I am no longer ___________________.
What did Paul’s letter to the Ephesians teach about family relationships and why would he include this as part of living “a life worthy of the calling you have received” (p. 455, Ephesians 4:1, 5:22-32)?
Look up Acts 9:15-16, Philippians 4:11-14, and 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. Paul asked Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel (p. 456, 2 Timothy 1:8). What does Paul’s life teach you about suffering? If Paul had asked you, like Timothy, to join him in suffering for the gospel as he had, what might have been your response?