A sermon preached on Acts 15:36-41 at University Christian Church, Hyattsville, MD
We love reading, watching or singing along to love stories, don’t we?
Maybe this is this why our reality show line up is full of finding love elements of their programing...
Big Brother, 90 Day Fiancé, Married by Mom and Dad, Say Yes to the Dress, anyone?
And let us not forget the show running now for 15 years, The Bachelor.
The Bachelor has proven to the be a franchise built upon viewers being sucked into to following an unrealistic 6-week journey across the world by a bachelor or bachelorette to “find love” but also to follow the journey of those who go home in defeat. When a contestant does not receive a rose “and is sent home” a limo or a back SUV appears and whisks him or her off to the airport. But this is not before a camera crew gets in the car with the sullen contestant.
And what follows? Viewers at home see all the emotions including pure sadness.
(Grown men bawling and young women with their mascara dripping down their face and their eye lashes falling off. And we all wonder do they realize millions are watching?)
And the Nielsen Ratings say about The Bachelor/ The Bachelorette that the more dramatic the break-up the more we are watching.
Bottom line: if this reality show has any mirror to reflect back what we find worth giving our time and energy toward, it is a good break-up story.
And so, then, listen closely church. What we have before us this morning is a good, a very good break-up story. A pair that may thought were a ministry match made in heaven has a falling out.
Our lesson from this morning is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. We know that after Jesus ascended into heaven, charging the disciples (and all those to come) with the great commission:
“Go ye therefore into all the world and preach the gospel. . .” and they had work to do!
And as the days of the lives of the apostles go, by time we reach chapter 9, we encounter a huge shift in the narration.
Saul, a known persecutor of followers of Christ and member of the Pharisee religious order, meets Jesus literally on the road to Damascus. What follows is one of the most dramatic conversions—Saul, the person you’d least expect to find himself on team Jesus—goes there, all there. Saul commits his life to service in telling others about Jesus.
But as you might imagine, so many have a hard time accepting him in the Christian way. I mean, Saul (who changes his name to Paul) says he’s a changed man? No way.
But not Barnabas.
Barnabas, a leader in the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, a leader whose name meant literally “Son of Encouragement” believed in Paul.
He trusted the testimony of Paul.
He blessed the change in Paul.
And he stood up for Paul when Paul sought out support from the gathering of believers in Jerusalem.
As the men go their separate ways, Paul back to this hometown of Tarsus and Barnabas as a leader in the church in Antioch, the two can’t be kept from one another for very long. In Acts 11, we read of Barnabas calling for Paul asking him to come with him to Antioch. The church needs a strong preacher and Barnabas thinks that Paul would be just the person for the job. Together, Paul and Barnabas did ministry together in Antioch for one year, scripture tells us.
And a couple of chapters over, we read of that the good times continue to roll.
The church in Antioch commissions Paul and Barnabas to take the first major missionary journey.
When I traveled to the Middle East on an interfaith delegation of clergy several years ago, our guide told us something about traveling companions that I have never forgotten.
Aziz said us that you never truly know someone until you travel with them.
Any maybe if you’ve taken any road trips with friends or family this summer you’d agree. For there’s nothing like being trapped in a car (even with headphones) with the same people for hours on end or sharing a one room hotel room to make you feel like you're ready for your own bed again.
I have to think the same was true for Paul and Barnabas. Trapped together in a boat, in side-by-side tents, and walking side-by-side for weeks, they knew one another. They preached together. They taught together. They organized together.
As a preacher/ teacher/ organizer who has also worked throughout my ministry with those who also preach/ teach/ organize, I have to tell you that this kind of work when done together, when done together with the blessing of the Spirit, can be a heart-knitting, a soul-binding season of life like none other. When you do this kind of work with people, you can’t imagine ever-growing a part.
BUT, Acts 15, verse 36 tells us of the conflict brewing below the service of this partnership made in heaven between Paul and Barnabas.
Paul is ready for round 2 telling Barnabas that he wants to “return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they were doing”
But Paul says no. Barnabas wants to take John Mark. Paul doesn't believe John Mark is a good choice.
The two simply do not see eye to eye.
The great break-up is underway.
Whether it was over personal differences (about John Mark’s readiness for service) as Acts narrates it. Or if it is over theological differences as Paul highlights in his own voice in the letter to the church of Galatians—we aren’t fully sure.
The point is that the two had a “sharp disagreement” a phrase that in the original Greek signifies a passionate or even bitter exchange.
And if you’ve had a sharp disagreement anytime in your life (and I’m sure you have) you know that you just don’t move forward too easily after having one.
Paul and Barnabas were no different. They don’t get back together. Never in scripture do they get back together.
When I first chose to study and preach on this passage this Sunday several weeks ago, I thought about the great mystery of relationships in this crazy world of ours. How someone can walk in our lives as a friend and become a dear one, even a “best” and then one day, say “see ya” with all the complications that follow.
I thought of all of the broken partnerships in our world. Long term dating relationships that end with rivers of tears. Marriages of 5, 10, 15 or 35 years that find their conclusion in the word divorce with blame slung around with never-ending speed. No one gets back together.
I thought of how in the Christian church we so tightly hold on to words like “reconciliation” and “unity” and “peace-making.” But here in this portion of scripture we get none of that. No reconciliation. No unity. No peace.
I believe there’s so much wisdom this text offers us WHEN splits happen in our friendships, our partnerships or even our churches.
For like Paul and Barnabas—when we find ourselves in a “sharp disagreement” with another person, institution or group sometimes the healthiest, most life-giving and fruit-bearing ministry we can do going forward is to SEPARATE from those who do not understand why we do what we do.
But on a morning like this. On a weekend like this. When Charlottesville happened . . . this sermon has to go a different direction than I might have planned to end it.
When hate filled the streets of a city in a state right next door to us . . .
When flags of regimes, we long thought were dead were raised in supremacy of a race killing at least 3 and injuring dozens more . . .
When marchers, many who will fill the pews this morning at churches with the same word “Christian” on the door as is on ours, rallied to say that brown lives and black lives did not matter . . .
When the highest leader in our land did not call out racism for the evil that it is . . .
It seems right to say this morning to have a family meeting. Come close church. It's important to remind one another that there comes a point when we cannot be silent.
For as Christian people, we believe with all our hearts, don’t we that we are ALL God’s children. No matter where we were born. No matter what the color of our skin is. No matter who we choose to love. We are ALL CHILDREN OF GOD. And with this true, there’s no room in our faith tradition, or in this community, or in our country for hate for anyone. There just isn’t.
Those people marching with Nazi t-shirts on aren’t our people.
I know, friends, we don’t like rocking the boat, especially when it comes to our closest friends and family whom we respect and have long-standing relationships with. We don’t like being seen as partisan or even judgmental.
I know friends, we believe in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 when Jesus prayed with all his might that “all of us may be one” . . .
BUT in the spirit of our text this morning (knowing that breaking-up can be one of the most spiritual things we do—even with members of our own tribe), we must break-up from hate.
We must break-up from any voices that don’t call acts like this weekend what they are: sin.
We must not idolize false unity, just for the sake of unity.
We must stand firm—knowing that our calling to strengthen others might just be to strengthen ourselves for the days that lie ahead . . . days when Charlottesville is not just somewhere out there. But here. Right here. In Washington DC. In Hyattsville. In our own backyard.
Elie Wisel, survivor of the Holocaust said this about silence (or another word for what I like to call the refusal to break-up):
“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
So, what will we do?
Will we be a part of an institutional break-up from hate, from racism, from anything that keeps the message of belovedness away from ANY person?
Will we have that courage to be ok to separate, as now the time that time has for sure come?
Or will we be silent?
I hope not. Pray not this day.
Let us boldly break-up.
Heaven . . . it’s something preachers don't preach on often because they're scared of what sacred cows in the congregation they might step on.
Heaven . . . it’s what theologians, teachers, preachers and cult leaders have written theories of for centuries –often making charts of who’s in and who’s out.
An 85 year-old couple, having been married almost 60 years, died in a car crash. They were in good health the last ten years mainly due to the wife’s interest in health food, and exercise.
When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they "oohed and ahhed" the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. "It's free," Peter replied. "This is heaven."
Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course in the neighborhood. Peter said they'd have golfing privileges everyday.
The man asked, "What are the green fees?"
Peter's reply, "This is heaven, you play for free."
Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out.
"How much to eat?" asked the old man
"Don't you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free!" Peter replied with some exasperation.
"Well, where are the low-fat and low cholesterol tables?" the old man asked timidly.
With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong.
The old man looked at his wife and said, "This is all your fault. If it weren't for your blasted bran muffins and tofu salads, I could have been here ten years ago!"
And it’s true we all have desires for what heaven will be like one day (calorie free for sure!)
We have hopes for who will not be there (people we don’t like very much of course).
And if we are truthful we might even have fears about what our passing over to the other side will mean for our bodies (Oh God, please let me have a good death!)
With all of this true, we’re in good company this morning with our lection from I Thessalonians. This church was also curious about the life beyond. Not only for their own experience, but also for those who had gone on before them. When they died, they wanted to know exactly what happened!
And so Paul has some words for them.
Which were: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as other do who have no hope.”
The church at Thessalonica expressed concerns to Paul about the life to come, not in a theoretical, “Well, what if?” kind of way but out of a particular situation in their community.
People in their church had died. Jesus hadn’t come back yet. They wanted to know what happened to those they loved. They were concerned about where they were.
But before we dive into what exactly what Paul’s words could have meant, consider this:
Paul, as a teacher, preacher and great evangelist of the early church, is often treated as a systemic theologian. In the centuries since that we’ve studied his correspondence, we’ve often used his words as prescriptions.
When we have questions on prayer…. Paul has an answer on that.
When we have questions on marriage . . . Paul has an answer for that.
When we have questions on tithing . . . Paul has an answer for that.
But, was the intent of letters Paul wrote to churches like Thessalonica? Is a systemic theologian who Paul most wanted to be?
So as a pastor, Paul wrote letters about particular situations in the churches where he ministered. And to the Thessalonians, Paul had a lot to say about standing firm under persecution.
In Thessalonica, following Jesus was not the norm. And as new converts to the faith, they had a hard reconciling the teachings of Jesus to what would become in the afterlife.
So what does Paul do?
He acts like any good pastor would and helps them find hope.
He writes them a “Pastor’s Pen” newsletter column.
And it went something like this (hold your breathe with me here because it is going to be a long sentence): “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Whoa. What a description!
For Paul gives us some pretty triumphant images to work with here.
Jesus as chief commander . . . the archangel’s call . . . sounding trumpets . . . those who have died rising again!
Or in other words, Church at Thessalonica, don’t worry. Those who have died will be with Jesus too at the end of time, just as those of us who are alive.
Yet, while it’s nice to feel like there are some answers what happens in the life beyond, is this how you and I are to read this ancient text?
There are a couple of things I feel like I think we should consider at this juncture about the nature of scripture in general.
Most scholars agree that texts like these weren't designed to be fodder for the Left Behind books that would appear on our shelves in the modern era. (Richard Hayes' Moral Vision of the New Testament is a great text to check out). The point was NOT to tell us who’s in and who’s out when our days on earth are through.
But, when writers like Paul or John (the author of the book of Revelations) write about “end times” it always comes in the context of providing hope for the suffering. Saying to a group of people beaten down and afraid: “This world is not all there is! There’s more to come! So stand firm under trials!"
And the way I see it, we have two options as we read the Bible:
So this morning, I return to the original question I began this sermon with: “What happens when life is over?”
If you are in camp 1 and believe Bible is without errors and every letter of it is meant to be direct instruction for our lives, then, I Thessalonians 4 is for you a picture of what is to come. The angels, the trumpets and so on . . . this will all be apart of the picture when life is over.
But keep in mind if this is your approach—you can’t pick and choose what you like and don’t. Under a literal reading of scripture ALL the texts apply—even the ones you think you might like very much about women covering your heads in church, not working on the Sabbath, and praying without ceasing.
But if you are in camp 2 and you believe in scripture is a story, the ongoing revelation between God and God’s people then, I believe I Thessalonians 4 is for you an invitation to know God’s ways through the body of literature that is the Bible. It’s an invitation to ask as you read: “What do I believe the character of God to be?”
Is God a God of love? Is God, a God of peace? Is God, a God of provision?
For as you get to know who God is, you can make hypothesizes for what might be true for all eternity as well. You can trust that as Saint Julia of Norwich once said, “All will be well. All matter of things will be well.”
At this point of the sermon, I leave you to make your choice as to what you believe the afterlife might be all about.
But in the spirit of Paul’s pastoral letter, I want to close this sermon today with a letter of my own.
I always give thanks for an opportunity to share the word of God with you. I thank you for your willingness to receive my husband and I into your fellowship. We love sharing our Sundays with you.
Yet, has come to my attention that may of you have questions about heaven and the life to come. I do not want you to worry or to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died.
Our bodies are temporary but our souls are eternal. Our Creator God is good. And I believe that when the moment comes when I breathe my last, I believe the Spirit of the Lord will help me be at peace. And I believe the same for you.
The verse of scripture I find myself hanging onto the most—for right or wrong—are the words that say, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
But you might wonder, what does that mean? What will that look like for me, Pastor?
As I have grown in my life and faith, most of all, I know that there’s a lot I don’t know. So I don’t want to give you specifics for even with my preacher superpowers (this is where you are supposed to laugh) because so far God has given me no details. (And frankly, I'd want you be question my judgment if I said I did).
Life to me is more of a mystery than it ever it is very certain. The ways of God always surprise me. But, I know God loves me and loves you. Nothing can ever separate me from that love.
And for me, this is all I need to know.
Will there be physical streets of gold up there? And a mansion with my name on it? Will there be a cookie bar with as much ice cream as I can eat?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
I don’t think when I find myself in the life beyond I’ll care much about the things I’ve spent so much time worrying about here on earth. All that will matter to me, I think, will be the glorious face of our Lord and being in God’s presence forever and ever without end.
So don’t be afraid my friends. Take heart. If you want to know more what heaven will be like, spent your time on this planet pursuing the things that intersect your life with God’s.
Love your friends.
Cry with the brokenhearted.
Give more than you receive.
Honor your body.
Seek justice for the voiceless.
A kingdom that connects you to all the saints that have gone before and the saints that will out live you in centuries to come. A kingdom that is full of the best that this life can offer: kindness, joy, companionship and hope even in the dark hours.
Thanks be to God for the kingdom of God in heaven and on earth.
Blessings on all of you as you read these words. Send my love to all the children too. Your pastor, Elizabeth
When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, I learned the Christian life was about these things:
I don't think my faith is could be measured by any of these acts anymore, but it doesn't mean I've thrown scripture out.
Paul had some words to share on the manner to the church in Philippi. As his parting gift to this congregation that had meant to so much to him as a missionary and preacher—he too wrestles with the question of what does it mean to live a Christian life.
The book of Philippians is the known as one of the happiest books in the Bible. It’s one of those books that you just feel inspired and convicted by all at the same time. It’s a book often cited by many Christians as their favorite book of the Bible. And I have to say it tops the favorite list for me.
But there's one catch about this book: Paul is writing while in prison. He’s been put in chains in Rome on behalf of his faith that the governmental leaders at the time didn’t like too much. His death might be near.
It’s almost like Philippians becomes his last word and testament: everything Paul has always wanted to say (or say again) and hasn’t had a chance yet.
And by time we reach chapter 3, we’ve gotten to know Paul at deeper level when he boldly proclaims that “everything was a loss in comparison of the gift of knowing Jesus” and that most of all Paul wants “to know the power of his resurrection and share in the fellowship of his sufferings.”
So, when we reach chapter 4, I can imagine that some of the readers of this letter were bursting, were overflowing, were saying, “Stop, stop, Paul. You’ve given us so much to take in. We can’t take any more.”
But what Paul does is give them more. Every good speech needs a strong concluding hook, right? Every great race needs a victory lap right? Every want-a-be graduate of the ways of Jesus needs “This is now how you live,” right?
And so we arrive at: “Advice for the Christian Life by Paul.”
Several years ago, Katie Couric, popular news anchor and journalist—was asked to give the commencement address at a university in Cleveland, OH. Quickly, she found herself in a quandary as to what to say. She wanted to do a good job, and thought of the idea of crowd sourcing many of her famous friends, asking as many the question: “What was some the best advice you’ve ever gotten?”
Katie was overwhelmed by the response and the generosity of time and thought of many that she began piecing all of the responses together—not just for this one commencement address but for a book published in 2011 called, The Best Advice I’ve Ever Gotten.
One such entry in Katie’s book came from, Joyce Carol Oats, award-winning author, poet and playwright. She offered advice to any young people seeking to walk in her footsteps with these words:
Don’t be discouraged!
Don’t be envious of others!
Read widely—what you want to read, and not what someone suggests you should read.
Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world, though you might try to treat others justly.
Don’t too quickly cut yourself off from the possibilities of experience.
Don’t give up. What is to say, don’t be discouraged!
Take all advice with the proverbial grain of salt.
And even if we are not aspiring to be writers or artists—Joyce Carol Oats gives us some pretty wise offerings, don’t you think, in all her direct, staccato like statements?
Paul’s edition of “The Best Advice I have to give you” comes to us in a similar fashion. It’s clearly to the point that you can almost feel him in the room beside as he’s saying these words:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplications present your requests to God. And the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”
What’s most interesting to me about this text is how much Paul changes gears from chapter 3 to chapter 4. In chapter 3, we almost feel out of breath with him in the running the race metaphors and fighting the good fight.
But Paul's “best advice ever given” starts with: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters . . . stand firm in the Lord.”
Stand firm is a very different from pressing on the race isn’t it?
Trying to reconciling these images is complicated! But one of my professors from seminary; Susan Eastman offers some suggestions saying that the answer lies in the prepositional cause “in the Lord.”
Eastman writes, “In the Lord, our forward movement [in the spiritual life] is like our constant movement on the surface of the earth; we are held fast by gravity at the center . . . constantly in motion but also constantly at rest.”
She goes on to say that we can’t just be in motion, doing, doing, and doing all the time in our spiritual lives without rest because: “Without this center of gravity, this grounding in the settled presence of Christ . . . the life of faith as a race quickly become frenetic and destructive.”
Or in other words—Paul is saying the Christian life is not just about what we do but it is about how we’re standing and who’s holding us. And that’s Jesus.
Yes, we strive for the spiritual disciplines to know Him and we run the best race we can. But, at the same time we remain planted in Lord. We wait upon the Lord. We are still. We allow the Lord to do what only the Lord can—which is of course a great mystery to us.
We do so because the kingdom of Jesus abides in a whole other reality—a reality that is not based on what we see, what we can rationally prove, or even how we feel about our lives on any given day. And this reality is what Paul exhorts us to stand firm in. Just as David wrote about in the great Psalm of the church: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He leads me by still waters . . . “
For the Christian life, my friends, is not just about what we do. The kingdom of Jesus is about something much deeper and embodied. So in the end, this passage which at first glance may appear to be a laundry list of instructions for living—becomes words that point back to Jesus. The One who simply asks us to stand firm.
So, how do you live the Christian life? When in doubt, stand firm. Jesus will take care of the rest! No evangelical checklist needed.