our service to God
The Sunday After the Ascension
Isaiah 33:5-6, 17, 20-22; Psalms 21:1-6, 24; 1 St. Peter 4:7-11; St. John 15:26-16:4
Kairos is a program in which a team of Christians enters a prison on consecutive days, hauling in mountains of fried chicken and barbecued beef and pizza and apple pie and chocolate cake – items that are not staples of an inmate’s diet.
They spend a Saturday and Sunday serving up this feast . . . but it is not the only nourishment they bring. They pack in the love of God as well. A Texas pastor described an experience on such a visit:
“A young man I will call Ernesto wanted to talk more about forgiveness,” the pastor said. “Inmates can request one-on-one counseling with the pastors on the team. Ernesto told me that he felt that God could forgive him, but he did not think his family could forgive him.
“Ernesto was so ashamed of his crimes that he cut off all contact with his family. He sent their letters back; he would not see them if they came to visit. He had not had any contact with his family for more than 10 years.
“I asked Ernesto, ‘What makes you think your mother would not forgive you?’
“He said, ‘Because she raised me better. My mom is a Christian woman; she went to church all the time and took all of us kids to church. She taught us right. That’s why I am so ashamed. I knew better; she taught me right. I don’t have a leg to stand on.’
“I asked Ernesto, ‘What if I showed you something in the Bible about forgiveness? Probably some scripture that you mother often reads.’
“We said the Lord’s Prayer together, and after ‘amen,’ I showed him the next two verses in Matthew 6, verses 14 and 15:
“’If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.’
“Ernesto said, ‘But I do forgive them,’ and I said, ‘Ernesto, I am not talking about you; I am talking about your mother. This scripture applies to her, too.’
“Ernesto looked at me kinda puzzled. I said, ‘Ernesto, if your mother is a Christian like you are telling me, she forgave you a long time ago. I bet she has been praying for you every single day since you got incarcerated.’
“Ernesto remained uncertain. He said, ‘You really think so?’ I said, Ernesto, ‘I feel almost certain. It doesn’t mean she approves of your mistakes; it just means she forgives you. I also feel certain she has been praying that you would also change your behavior . . . but that’s up to you.’
“Then it happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, Ernesto was able to believe in the love and forgiveness of God. And he began to weep. He was a mess; I wondered if he was having some sort of nervous breakdown. In hindsight, the Holy Spirit had moved into his heart
“It took a while, but he settled down. And almost like it was right out of Acts chapter 2, he asked me, ‘What should I do?’
“I said, ‘Ernesto, it’s time to repent and ask God to forgive your sins, and to change your ways.’ He prayed. Then we prayed together, and he was halfway laughing with joy and crying at the same time. He was slobbering and snot was flowing!
“I said, ‘It’s time to get back to our table and tell all your brothers in white (the other inmates) that you are becoming a man of God. And you need to tell your cellmate, and you need to write your mother tonight, and tell her God has saved you. All of this, Ernesto, is an answer to her many, many prayers.’
“And we went out to see the other inmates. I saw a guard coming up to our table, and I heard him tell Ernesto, ‘You have a visitor. Come check out with the chaplain and you can go see them.’
“Ernesto said: ‘Who is it? I don’t get visitors.’ And the guard said, ‘It’s your mother.’
“All I could get out was, ‘Praise God!’ I wish I could describe his face to you. He was overcome with joy and astonishment and . . . it was just indescribable.’”
Love – God’s love — will cover a multitude of sins. Long before Ernesto stumbled upon this indescribable truth, St. Peter revealed it in his first letter to the persecuted and scattered Christians of the first century.
We are now six Sundays removed from Easter. Since that highest holy day of the Christian year, our gospel lessons have led us into a growing awareness of who Jesus is as Christ and our epistle lessons into a deepening understanding of how we must live in response to His crucifixion and resurrection.
Just last week, we celebrated His ascension as well. In the collect for Ascension Day we prayed that we who believe in Christ’s ascension “may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell . . .”
We now look ahead to the advent of the One who will empower us to live in such a way that we may ascend in heart and mind and dwell with our Lord in His heaven. The kingdom of heaven is open for business this very day . . . open to those who make Christ’s sacrificial life the pattern for their own.
One week from today, if the Lord does not return before, we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This morning we prayed in our collect to the “King of glory” who has already exalted His Son “with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven” to “leave us not comfortless but send to us thy Holy Ghost to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before . . .”
We hover today in the warp between the ascension of the Son of God and the condescension of the Spirit of God. Peter wants us to know that love covers a multitude of sins.
But we mustn’t get ahead of our story. The apostle begins our lesson for today by raising the alarm: The end of all things is at hand.
The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We must go and tell the king.
And Chicken Little is off, soon to be joined by Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander and Turkey Lurkey.
They must escape the clutches of Foxy Loxy. Or is that Foxy Woxy? They must go and tell the king.
But . . . no. That wasn’t the sky falling, after all, but an acorn landing on the little chickie’s head. Oh dear, oh dear.
The end of all things is at hand! The end of all things is at hand! Is St. Peter’s hair on fire?
And now here we sit, today, 2,000 years later, looking forward to our lunch. Birds chirping, kids playing . . . The end of all things is not near. Never was. Those gullible Christians. They’ll swallow any old yarn.
It is undeniably true that the early church – including its leading lights such as Peter and Paul – expected the Lord to return in judgment within their generation. Peter had watched his Lord ascend from the Mount of Olives until He vanished in a cloud. He had heard angels repeating Jesus’ pledge that He would return.
Some seem to have expected Him in weeks or months. And so we ask: How near is near? Were the apostles nervous Nellies? Do the mockers have a case?
We must say three things in response. First, in a real sense these apostles had seen the end already. Christ had brought it with Him. In Him, all Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled. The age of man’s thrashing attempts to justify himself under the law was over.
God’s solution had arrived. In Christ, eternity invaded time. We may watch the clock and consult the calendar but by God’s reckoning Christ ushered in the day without end. As His apostles died off, the demise of the last vestiges of the Lord’s life on earth passed away. The end was near.
Second, since the Christ’s ascension, no one else has exited this world so gracefully. The apostles and all who have followed have met physical death. So in that sense, for you and for me, for every one of us, the end is near.
Third, and perhaps even more to the point, is Peter’s comment in his second letter. God is not slow to keep His promises; He is allowing the reprobate ample time to repent and follow the Lord. “But, beloved,” he writes, “do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8).
The apostle’s point is that the Christian life enfolds an urgency of giving our best for God today because tomorrow – be it the day of our death or of our Lord’s return – is so very near. The rich farmer in the parable filled his barns, put up his feet and took his ease.
He ate, drank and made merry. He did not heed the caution: “This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20).
It bears noting as well that our soon-coming King is with us today in the Person of His Holy Spirit . . . and therein lies another motivation to a life pleasing to Him.
In the previous passage, Peter has given instruction on how not to live as Christians in time of trial. Now he posits the positives by way of contrast:
Not drunken debauchery and licentiousness but sobriety, clarity of mind, self-control. Not lust but love. Not orgies but hospitality. Not exploitation but ministry. Not the pagan life but the life of prayer.
Clarity of mind and self-control are necessary for prayer, which the Lord had prescribed for His disciples in times of crisis. In the Garden of Gethsemane He had commanded Peter to keep watch and to pray. Instead, Peter slept.
Now the apostle counsels his disciples to keep a clear head and a tight rein on their emotions. He is counseling them to hold on to their sanity, to keep things in perspective. Do not hurtle pell-mell into enthusiasms of the moment – do not amuse yourselves to death — but remain grounded in eternal truth, and prayer.
For Christian unity, prayer is a non-negotiable. What shall we pray? “Thy will be done.” Sober, clear-headed prayer seeks not the Christian’s fallible will but his Lord’s perfect will. As we watch the world around us fray this day, what shall we pray? “Thy will be done.”
In a loose translation of Proverbs 10:12, the apostle declares that “love will cover a multitude of sins.” But whose love? It is God’s love that covers a multitude of sins. We cannot love passionately enough to save ourselves from our sins. Only God can.
Forgiving, transforming love of this sort puzzles us sinners. Like Ernesto, we sentence ourselves to a prison enclosed by the razor wire of unforgiveness; we cling to our guilt and squeeze our eyes shut against the truth of the mercy of God – and His people. Until someone comes along to speak the gospel into our lives and we let down our guard . . . and the Holy Spirit rushes in to fill that God-sized hole inside us.
Peter goes on: Gifts are for service, not self-aggrandizement. Our Lord Himself commanded His followers to practice hospitality: “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35.
The literature of the early church is replete with exhortations to open homes to traveling apostles, preachers, teachers, evangelists and bearers of letters. Inns were few and far between and money scarce.
The “Didache,” or “Teaching,” a document of the church that dates to the first decade of the second century, sets out specific regulations for offering hospitality to travelers. And while this instruction is intensely practical, we must not assume that it is not also spiritual.
Yes, there’s a Day’s Inn just down the road but its presence does not cancel the Christian’s obligation to exercise his gift. Pointedly, Peter tacks on an admonition to do so “without grumbling.” The “Didache” passage also spells out proper conduct for guests. The authors may have been anticipating the Italian proverb: “A guest is like a fish; after three days he stinks.”
Peter is teaching on relations within the church. His instruction on “speaking the oracles of God” applies equally to those who are preaching to the flock or ministering to outsiders. He may have in mind his own experience, described in Acts ch. 10, of witnessing to the gentile Cornelius and his family, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in like manner of His anointing of Peter and the other Jews in ch. 2.
The preacher’s opinions matter only insofar as they align with God’s opinions. Otherwise, he can stuff ‘em. I must tell you that it requires a learned discipline to avoid wandering away from the text and interjecting one’s own philosophies into the sermon. Those are not the “oracles of God.”
To have a spiritual gift – and every Christian has at least one – is to be a steward of the grace of God. Do not treat it as a trifling thing. God works by means – often human means – and that gift He has awarded you is to be put to work for the benefit of others and the glory of the Giver.
Only if we minister using God’s gifts and His strength will we give Him all the glory. If we operate in our own capacities we are serving ourselves. And when such a “ministry” finds what looks like success, that “success” may in fact be God’s judgment.
I think of the TV hucksters who promise healings . . . with all major credit cards are accepted. The joint’s rocking, the choir’s singing, the “love” flowing. And as Paul teaches of idolaters in Romans 1, God gives them up to their “vile passions.”
There’s a lesson here for those who are sincere in ministry as well. Church-planting strategies and church-growth methods are not wrong in and of themselves, but those who use them must exercise caution.
When they appear to work, it’s all too easy to credit one’s own cleverness and rob glory from the One who gives the increase.
The apostles had once squabbled about who would be most exalted in the kingdom of heaven. Now this post-Pentecost Peter acknowledges it is by God’s grace that he can bid a lame man walk and preach the gospel with conviction and power. He is seeking glory not for himself but for his Lord.
Only when reading Peter and John among writers of New Testament letters can we compare their impetuous and immature words and actions when they were walking with Jesus to their knowledge and wisdom after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.
How – now — could they fail to see that it is only by God’s grace communicated by His Spirit that they could accomplish any meaningful work?
Beloved in the Lord, you and I did not tread the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus. We were not there to witness His ascension and we were not on hand at Pentecost when the Spirit came down and poured out salvation and blessing on His people. But we have this same Spirit in no less measure than they.
We are equipped with His gifts to serve God in ways great and small and the humility to give Him the glory. These attributes are present within us because the Holy Spirit is present within us. Our job is to get out of His way and let Him do His miraculous, life-saving work through us. Amen.