Saturday, May 28, 2011

A, Easter 6 – Acts 17:22-31 “Religious Men”

Religious Men
A sermon on Acts 17:16-31
The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Pastor Heath Pukallus Katanning-Narrogin Lutheran Parish

Acts 17:16–21 (ESV) Now while Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

God caused Paul to stop, sit around, and wait in his ministry. So he waited there in Athens the Greek city of many remarkable structures built for a pantheon of gods. We might think of temples like the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. Or the Acropolis where it and other temples stood above Athens.

No doubt visitors to Athens are overwhelmed by these massive temples raised up out of the city's centre. But as Paul sat around seeing these monolithic monuments to the idol gods of Athens agitated and irritated him. And so after he witnessed and absorbed so much idolatry he could be quite no longer. Paul began to ask questions. He began speaking and preaching to the Jews and the devout believers in the synagogue. And amongst the pagans in the marketplace.

What makes this all a bit of a surprise to us is Paul was supposed to be just waiting in Athens after being banished from the northern Greek trading city of Thessalonica and pursued west through Macedonia by militant Jews to the city of Berea. This caused the believers there to take Paul, by sea, south to Athens, to escape false allegations and punishment whipped up by the jealous Jews of Thessalonica. And yet Paul being Paul, embittered with passion for the Gospel starts speaking with the Jews and locals of Athens. And soon after finds himself addressing the men of the city at the Areopagus, a lesser hill overshadowed by the Parthenon and other pagan temples.

This brings us to the text set down for today, where Paul address the thinkers of Athens. These Greek men were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers among others. All Greeks viewed the human being through the eyes of Plato, in that people were both physical and spiritual beings. But they separated and distinguished these two as a dichotomy — two parts mutually exclusive of each other.

The Epicureans therefore viewed life to be enjoyed since the physical life on earth was to be left some day for the higher spiritual life. Although not just pleasure seekers, Epicureans held the mindset of many today whose belief it is to, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die!" They sought to gratify the desires of the emotions. They thought they could do whatever they wanted with the physical body as it would have no consequence for the spiritual body of the next life. This led to many living immorally and it's the lifestyle Paul denounces at Corinth. We hear his attack on their orgies and sexuality written in First Corinthians.

Then there were the Stoics who under the same platonic dualism, sought a higher life of stoicism by denying the emotions and rising above them through dedication to moral and intellectual perfection. Many today still operate with the same stoic ideal that the body is evil and must be punished. And in doing so they believe they make themselves better people by denying any sort of emotion outbreak — good or bad.

It seems as if Paul has been taken from the frying-pan and put into the fire! But this doesn't stop Paul from honouring Christ the Lord as holy, and making a defence before the men of Athens as the reason for the hope templed in him. (1 Peter 3:15)

So Paul addresses them in the Areopagus saying, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for " 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, " 'For we are indeed his offspring.' Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:22–31 ESV)

Paul addresses the men as religious. He sees they are overwhelmed by what is around them. Paul uses a strong word for religious here which comes from two Greek words equivalent to delirious and demon. Negatively he said they are deliriously demonstrous, or overly superstitious. After all, Paul was agitated in his spirit by the idolatry around him! But since they don't react negatively to being called religious men, they probably took his words in the positive sense of being devout adherents to their pagan efforts. Or, perhaps being men who like open discussion on philosophical matters they neither saw being demonic nor delirious as negative as we do today.

Nevertheless, Paul finds an opening to proclaim God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, to these religious men. They believing in many gods, allowing Paul to tell them about this "unknown god" whom they had no name and to whom they had an altar. He even shrewdly and eloquently uses the words of pagan poets' to convince them about the truth of God announcing to them that we are God's offspring, and we live, move, and have our being in him.

We must notice here with these words, Paul is moving them towards Christ. Humanity did live move and have its being in God, yet sin has corrupted these things in us and Jesus was sent to bring us back to the Father, by moving us once again into God's presence by his way, by giving us and showing us our being in his truth, and healing the way we live through his life. We live, move, and have our eternal being in Jesus Christ.

However, Paul doesn't even get to mention the cross or Christ to these men. He calls them out of their ignorance to repent of the images of their imaginations for which they have built temples in their idolatry. But their ears became sealed at Paul's mention that a man will come in righteousness to judge the world whom God has raised from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, "We will hear you again about this." So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:32–34 ESV)

Why did some mock Paul? Because it was foolishness to a Greek to hear of returning to a physical body in resurrection after attaining the higher spiritual body. To them this was ludicrous and inferior.

Perhaps the events of being chased by jealous Jews and mocked a mad man were in Paul's thoughts when he later wrote to the Corinthians saying…

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22–25 ESV)

There are still many religious people today, inside and outside the church. A mixture of those within and without Jesus Christ and the faith the Holy Spirit seeks to give in the preaching of God's Word. There are some whose righteousness sees them seeking to staunchly do the right thing. They think that because they're good people and law abiding citizens they have earned the right to a higher life.

Then there are others hell-bent on having a good time, living life with the misconception if God is a god of love he won't hurt me. Yet both are idolatrous acts of self-righteousness, and trusting these delirious delusions destines one for a date with the devil on judgement day, regardless of church attendance or not.

It's God's wish for you not to be religiously righteous in its delirious deceptive way, in church or in any part of your life. Rather than being religious he calls you to be Christian instead. This happens when you stop and let Jesus religiously serve you through his death and resurrection, through your being buried with Jesus in baptism and raised through faith by the Holy Spirit as you continually hear the Word, repent, and believe in him whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A, Easter 5 - Acts 7:54-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10 "A Stone Like Stephen"

One would have to agree being stoned would be up there as one of the worst ways to die. Next to crucifixion it would be an equally painful and slow death. Each body blow would tear at your flesh and smash your bones, disfiguring your body ever so slowly. For someone to willingly stone another person the intent would have to be personal as they saw and heard each rock wreck the person in front of them.

Stephen was chosen as one of seven disciples, to distribute welfare to the gentile believers so the apostles could focus solely on the work of preaching and teaching. We don't hear much about these seven, except that Stephen's faithfulness was truly born of the Holy Spirit, and this caused him to be recognised amongst the seven, and all those who came in contact with him.

What then arises amongst the people is what is known as "the tall poppy syndrome". False allegations are secretly brought against Stephen by some who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." (Acts 7:11 ESV)

Notice how dissension grows out of secrecy. Grumbles from those whose pride was offended by the exposing reality of having had their sinfulness revealed, leads them further into sin.

Nevertheless, Stephen under complete submission to God freely allows the Holy Spirit to radiate from him in all wisdom and power from God, revealing wonders and signs through this disciple who was originally called to serve in the seemingly tedious task of handing out food, to the gentiles, no less!

We have cause to reflect on the instance in Lazarus' house when Mary sat at Jesus' feet while Martha worked to prepare the meal, and was far from joyful in doing so. (See Luke 10:38-41.) She was not happy in her vocation, choosing to meditate, or grumble, about Mary not helping her in the kitchen. Often it's heard Martha should have been out at Jesus' feet too, but this is wrong.

Rather it was Martha's calling, or vocation, to be "at Jesus' feet" in the kitchen, while Mary's was literally at his feet as he spoke. Stephen got it right serving and seeing the holiness of his vocation, even if it could be easily seen as a lesser task, compared to the work the apostles were doing, preaching and teaching.

Stephen is found to be the faithful and submissive servant, joyfully allowing God — to be God through him — in his vocation of serving. He is tenacious in the faith given to him as he does the work he is called to do — a contented Martha figure, if you like! However, others fell into the discontented and disgruntled ways like those of Martha. And from this deep-seated secret sin flourishes the actions that see Stephen stoned.

But as Stephen is pelted with the deadly assault he assumes a position that should surprise us. Beaten down by the blows he does not recede into himself as we would expect. Our natural human instinct is to protect our vital organs by huddling in a foetal position. But the picture the scriptures paint of Stephen is far from a man cowering in on himself as he is beaten to death.

In fact as the opposition gnarled its teeth at him, as the mob gathered, and as it was whipped into a feverish frenzy, Stephen gazed! Now to gaze here means to cast one's attention at something. It can be to stare in complete earnestness or in a way that is what we refer to as day-dreaming. Nevertheless, one's focus is completely on a single person, thing, or event.

On what would your attention be if a mob was hurling stones at you? Surprisingly Stephen's was on God. He gazed at God! By the power of the Holy Spirit he saw into heaven, he saw God's glory, and he saw Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God the Father. And as he saw these things he testified to what he saw, saying, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56 ESV)

So full of the Holy Spirit, despite being smashed by stones, he testified to the risen presence of Jesus Christ. The reality of the situation allowed Stephen to be drawn out of himself to focus on a heavenly reality, a witness the ears of unbelievers could not stand and still cannot stand today.

Despite the earthly reality we face here day after day, like Stephen you and I are called to see the greater reality. This reality grows when you allow yourself to hear who God says you are. If you don't, then your reality will always be clouded by your own efforts, your own understanding and your own mortal shortness of attention.

With the reality seen through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, repentance is produced, together with a craving for the pure spiritual milk of God. You want to pray; you want to study the scriptures and come to know how they are being unfolded in your day to day life. The desire is there and with this desire comes the Spirit's cry within you, as you pray for spiritual, scriptural understanding.

You begin asking more and more for your life to be conformed to that of Jesus' life, and your will to that of the good and gracious will of your Father in heaven. And as you peer into the word of God, you pray that its truth is embedded in you by the Holy Spirit, and your ways and life are understood according what is written.

As this happens, throughout your walk with God in this life, all areas of unbelief are revealed and challenged. There is a continual loosening of your ears and heart and the stiffness of sin is softened so you might repent, and you gaze more and more on the glory of God as you realise it's his grace and power filling you so you do even greater things than Jesus did before he was nailed to the cross and raised from the grave.

This is the position in life, the vocation, Stephen was fulfilling. This is the vocation God seeks to fulfil in you. He wants to be God with you, in you, and through you. He wants you to allow him to be the God that he truly is — healing your sin, giving you faith, that's forgiving, tenacious and fully focused on the greater reality which awaits all who allow God to be God within.

Your vocation is one of holiness and it tastes good. If your Christian life does not taste good, then you've been eating the wrong stuff! So pray that you might stop and allow God to give you the food of life – his holiness, his way, his truth, and his life.

Like Stephen your immediate circumstances most likely won't change. Perhaps they might even deteriorate. But like Stephen and all who trust in Jesus you will be growing into salvation, fed by the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. You will become so heavenly minded the world may think you have no earthly use, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the prayers you pray, the life you live, and the compassion you give will be as result of your willingness to see your weakness and trust in God's strength. His power will not only move you but flow through you polishing the faith of those around you.

Those who believe in Christ are like polished stones. Things happen and we encounter all sorts of people throughout the course of our lives. Some of these are far from pleasing, and they come about because of humanity's sin, although many often blame God for them and the suffering experienced!

However, God doesn't take these irritating and hazardous stones away from our lives, rather he allows them to remain, to agitate, and to knock off the many edges of unbelief! So when we come out of the mix of life, we are not just stones of death but rather polished jewels reflecting the light of the Son — the glory of God.

So the question is this: Are you allowing God to polish you so you might have a place with Christ — the Cornerstone in the eternal kingdom of God? Or: Are you stumbling over Christ, has his Church left a sour taste in your mouth, or are you so earthly minded you are no use to yourself or anyone around you? Also does the truth of his word offend you so much you'd rather join others in being the agitators of those focused on their eternal reality?

If you are then it's time to talk if you don't want it to be this way! Talk by praying to God, tell him exactly what is going on right down in the secret part of your being. Enlist pastors, called to help those who honestly seek help. You can't shrug off reality nor can you afford to lose sight of the eternal goal.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, thankyou for allowing the things of this life to rub us up the wrong way, to agitate us, and knock off the things that cause us to lose our reflection of you! Continue to polish us so we might live out the many vocations in our everyday lives as your holy priesthood, reflecting the glory of God to all those around us, so they too might be polished for eternal life with you. Help us to gaze upon you and your reality, just as Stephen did, and send the Holy Spirit into our hearts so we might taste and see that your are good and continually present spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A, Easter 3 – Luke 24:13-35 “The Emmaus Twist”

The Emmaus Twist
A sermon on Luke 24:13-35
The Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)08/05/11
Pastor Heath Pukallus Katanning-Narrogin Lutheran Parish

The Emmaus resurrection account is a most fascinating resurrection account in the literary sense and also because of Jesus' mysterious interaction amongst his disciples. Added to this no one can say with certainty where this town of Emmaus was located.

Meditating on this text we hear two of the seventy-two disciples were walking away from Jerusalem with downcast faces, and in disbelief. As the two walk along the road to Emmaus they burn with hopelessness and despair. Whereas after Jesus' resurrection revelation through the breaking of bread, there is an immediate return of the disciples' hope as they urgently return to Jerusalem.

However, we first hear their mood is low. Their walk to Emmaus is lethargic, melancholy, and short-sighted. They're on the road to "nowhere special" in particular; staggering along recounting the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday completely confused and impassioned with remorse. Jesus meets these men on their Emmaus walk and they don't even have the ability to recognise he is the Risen Lord.

In fact we're told in Luke 24:16, their eyes were held back from seeing him. Either they didn't see him because they were so self-absorbed in their sinful nature to be able to recognise him. Or, they were held back from seeing by God himself, so the hidden risen Lord had an opportunity to teach them in their brokenness. Then again it could have been a combination of both. But either way Jesus was with them in all his risen power and glory, and they failed to notice this — they were completely powerless as they looked into themselves.

So as these two unimportant disciples walked towards the nowhere in particular town, as hopeless and powerless nobodies, discussing events that gave them no answers, they are met by a man who they thought to be a stranger or a 'nobody'. Jesus is this supposed nobody and he asks them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" (Luke 24:17)

Cleopas, one of the two disciples reacts abruptly to the question saying, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" (Luke 24:18)

Unknowingly, his snapping reply is also a testimony to Jesus' status as a heavenly visitor who was seeing these events through very different eyes! However, we know Cleopas was speaking to he who was cast out of Jerusalem and crucified, but now stood raised by God the Father in all his glory.

Jesus walks with them on the road, although hidden from sight, and he encourages them to look out of themselves by asking them to talk about these things that had just happened. So with hearts burning within they tell this "stranger" about Jesus of Nazareth.

Notice what they say. They don't understand Jesus is the Christ, so they say he was Jesus of Nazareth, and that he came to be a prophet or a man with great power before God and humanity. Ironically Jesus of Nazareth stood before them in the flesh bearing all the power of the Risen Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. Here the glorified risen Son of God stood before them veiled in the body of a seemingly ignorant stranger.

After the two disciples report the mysterious events of the crucifixion and the vacant tomb, Jesus begins to turn them from their downheartedness. He does it with some very straight words too. We heard Cleopas' snapping reply to Jesus' question, now Jesus mirrors his action with some stern chastising words too.

He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26)

Notice here that Jesus doesn't speak of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, as a person in the past! But in fact builds on the disciples' testimony, focusing them on the scriptures pointing forward to the messianic title and work of Christ.

If before the disciples thought he was an ignorant stranger, they must have now known otherwise in the wake of his sudden rebuke and authoritative teaching from God's word. Yet still they did not see their Lord, even though they were looking right at him as he taught.

They walk along the road and on reaching Emmaus Jesus acted as if he was going further. However, the two disciples encouraged him to stay with them. We notice here these two disciples who had been so caught up in themselves are now actually looking outward. Such is the power of God's word, which Jesus had just opened up to them. The two disciples had received Jesus' rebuke and teaching well and now they invited their mysterious teacher to keep company with them.

Once in doors, this visitor took his place at the table. But in the same way he opened God's word with all authority, he also took the bread gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.

Guests typically received the bread from the host who distributed it, not the other way around. But now having heard the word and on seeing this mysterious visitor break the bread in the way he had done before his death, the veil falls from their eyes and they see the Lord Jesus Christ.

They don't just see a foreign visitor, they don't just see Jesus of Nazareth, they don't just see their teacher, but they see the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, who had been before them the whole time. How their hearts must have jumped! Perhaps with joy but also with shame too, at not recognising him!

Now the fascinating twist occurs. They had Jesus with them the whole time, they could have touched him as he walked with them, yet they didn't see it was him. Now they see him for who he is and in an instant he disappeared from their sight.

In a moment they went from not knowing he was there, although they could see him, to knowing he was there, although his physical presence disappeared. At one minute they thought the crucifixion meant there was no Lord and hence no peace. Then in the next minute, having heard the word and seeing him break bread, they did know the Lord had overcome death, and they did know of peace. Peace beyond all human understanding, transforming their hearts from downheartedness back to hope in Christ.

They immediately leave Emmaus and return to Jerusalem, hurrying along with hope and joy to tell the others the great news.

From this point on the whole church would proclaim the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday with joyful uplifted hearts, trusting that the Lord is risen.

Unlike the downhearted recollection of these events in Jesus' hidden presence on the road to Emmaus, we now stand with boldness and proclaimed our hope in he who is raised and is faithfully present with us, although hidden in his Word and in the Sacraments.

How wonderful it is for you and me when the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus Christ to us, even when we burn with downheartedness or hardheartedness, so much so, we have no power of our own to recognise him.

What a fantastic sense of relief and peace it is that settles on us when we realise, our Lord has been there, faithfully walking with us, the whole time.

What a privilege we have as bearers of this peace when we point others to Jesus in his Word and the Sacraments.

Do you realise when you declare to others, "It is true! Jesus Christ is risen!" Not only are you declaring this truth, you are also bearing the Risen Lord himself before others, and giving them access to the peace that passes all human understanding which can keep every person's heart and mind in him — Christ Jesus our Lord — Amen.