Last Words

“Last Words”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 28, 2017
7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14

The last words of famous people capture our attention.  Humorous souls often leave us with a reflection of their personality.  Take Groucho Marx whose last words were:  “Die my dear?  Why that’s the last thing I’ll do,” or Bing Crosby who said, “That was a great game of golf, fellers.”  And then there are those more thoughtful in nature such as Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “I’ve always loved my wife, my children, and my grandchildren, and I’ve always loved my country.  I want to go.  God, take me.”  A few that are more enlightening to our setting this morning include Thomas Eidson who said, “It is very beautiful over there;” Mother Teresa who said, “Jesus, I love you.  Jesus, I love you,” and from evangelist, Henry Ward Beecher, “Now comes the mystery.”

 

While we may find the last words of famous people interesting, the last words spoken by our loved ones are the ones we really cherish.  If we are allowed the precious gift of being with a loved one in the last moments of his or her life, we listen carefully; we hang on every word as a treasure to hold forever in our heart.

 

Realizing the importance of Jesus to our life and faith, as well as the importance of last words in general, let us look carefully at the last words of Jesus—not words before his death, but words prior to his ascension. In a way, they serve as his last will and testament, lending authority to all who will follow him down through the ages.

 

Easter has come and gone and Jesus has appeared repeatedly, providing encouragement and hope.  We are told earlier in this chapter that for 40 days he offers convincing proofs, speaking about the kingdom of God and telling his chosen ones not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father.  The 40 days serve as a time of preparation—not for Jesus—but for the disciples—disciples who gather around him for the last time, unbeknownst to them, to ask this question?  “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  You can’t blame them for asking.  It’s a good question.  I mean Jesus has died, he has risen and he continues to promise power.  The disciples are longing for a preview of coming attractions.

 

So what are the last words of Jesus?  First, he says, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  Through these words Jesus emphasizes the importance of the mystery of God’s plan. The ways that God calls, changes, restores and empowers—it is a mystery.  The final days and how and when God’s final reign will come—it is a mystery.

 

In seminary, a great deal of emphasis is placed on learning to exegete Scripture, translate Hebrew and Greek, and interpret difficult passages through a variety of critical methods—all important skills for the minister to acquire. But I can’t help but wonder if something more is needed. Perhaps ministers should add to the tools of the trade the practice of simply being mystified before God. And to embrace this mystery, to accept the words “it is not for us to know” might provide for us a much-needed dose of humility. There are times when I feel my best work is to sit with you in amazement—in awe of a God too great for any of us to understand or fully explain. Great is the mystery of our faith.

 

It is in the midst of the Mystery that Jesus provides hope through his last words:  “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” The Greek word for power, dynamis, is the root from which we get the word “dynamite.” It indicates a force to be reckoned with. And this force, the Holy Spirit, becomes available to all believers soon after Jesus speaks these words.

 

On this Lord’s Day, we dare to gather here to meet God—to contemplate the Source of our strength, to confess, to sing, and to pray. But do we want to leave worship different than we came in? Do we really want God to be unleashed not just in our worship, but in our very lives?

 

Annie Dillard once wrote:

[In church] does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we [casually] invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

 

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus says, and to this he adds: “and you shall be my witnesses.”  A witness is one who testifies to the truth.  In this passage, the one who bears the truth carries the divine message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, are witnesses.  Maybe we aren’t called to be door-to-door evangelists, but witnessing to the power of Jesus in our lives comes in many forms—a phone call when a friend loses a loved one, a cup of coffee with a neighbor who is going through a hard time, a visit with someone who’s in the hospital or nursing home, an invitation to join us in worship or study, an offer to pray on behalf of the other. These are opportunities to express concern and share the hope that we have found. As believers in Christ, as people baptized by the water and by the Holy Spirit, we have the power, power given by God above—power to make a difference—power to bring people to the knowledge and love of God through our words and our actions.

 

Jesus speaks his last words and then he’s gone. The disciples watch—mystified—they cannot take their eyes off the heavens. Then two men in white robes appear and ask:  “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come [back] in the same way.”  It seems that the time for sky gazing has quickly come and gone.

 

I once read a novel in which one of the main characters was a young nun working on the streets of San Francisco after a terrible earthquake.  Because her order did not require the traditional nun’s habit, she had the freedom to wear more casual clothing as she ministered to the needy. One day, in an effort to help lighten the mood, she appeared in a T-shirt with the slogan:  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy!” Doesn’t that capture in a nutshell what the two men (probably angels) were saying to the disciples: “Why do you stand looking up into the sky?  There is work to be done.  Jesus is coming…Look busy!”

 

The group obediently returns to Jerusalem together.  They realize their need for each other.  They remember together.  They learn patience together and they pray together.  Sounds like important work for a group of people about to become the church—doesn’t it?  Sounds like important work for us for still we are a praying, gathering and remembering people.

 

On the Christian calendar, Thursday marked the Ascension of the Lord—which is why many churches recognize the event on this final Sunday of Easter. As one minister put it:  “We celebrate the Ascension because we’re no different from the early church who gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed:  the news that they were going to receive power.  And perhaps even more importantly, we celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have.”[i]

 

As believers, baptized by water and the Spirit, we receive comfort and courage from the last words of Jesus.  Let us think on them often.  Let us store them as treasures within our hearts and let us share them so others may believe.

 

It is not for us to know, he said…

Some things remain a mystery.

 

You will receive power, he said…

A power given to us to make a difference.

 

You will be my witnesses, he said…

Until Jesus returns, there is work to be done! Indeed, Jesus is coming!

Get busy!

 

[i] Rev. Dr. Catherine Taylor

I Will Not Leave You

“I Will Not Leave You”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 21, 2017

6th Sunday of Easter

John 14:15-21

 

We are nearing the end of Easter season. In fact, on the Christian calendar, Thursday marks the Ascension of our Lord. On this 6th Sunday of Easter, our focus begins to turn from the resurrection of Jesus to the approaching Holy Spirit. The setting is the Upper Room; the occasion—the Last Supper; and the program is reminiscent of a professor offering his last lecture to his faithful students.
 
What makes it into this farewell address which extends over 4 chapters? Prior to our reading for today, Jesus washes the disciple’s feet, and then he foretells how he will be rejected and denied—even by dear Peter. Jesus provides the new commandment—love one another as I have loved you. Following today’s text, again Jesus will mention the need for love. We might say that Preacher John—well, he shows up every Sunday preaching the same message—the message of love! Love resounds in Jesus’ words for us today:  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…” and, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
 
Jesus is moving on and he knows it. When he does, his followers will be troubled and Jesus knows it. But, even though his followers may feel alone when Jesus departs—they will not be alone.
 
Jesus holds the key to abundant life and he’s about to make it abundantly available. “I will not leave you…” is his promise. Jesus is sending another Counselor, another Advocate.
 
The Holy Spirit is coming—but when? The gospels don’t agree on precisely when the Spirit will be given to the community.  Mark barely mentions the theme, saying only that when believers must give testimony before the authorities, the Holy Spirit will provide the words.[i]
 
Matthew promises the presence of Christ rather than the Spirit as Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[ii]
 
John mentions the promised Spirit in today’s reading, but later, on Easter night, Jesus comes to the disciples, who are gathered behind locked doors, and says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.[iii]
 
The writer of Luke and Acts delays the coming of the Spirit until some 7 weeks after Easter. The disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem for the blessing God will send. In Acts, Jesus’ last words before being taken out of sight are:  “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[iv]
 
While told in a different way, with a mixture of history and metaphor, each gospel expresses the truth of a particular, life-altering religious event. In the end, all of the Christian community understands that they are recipients of the same Holy Spirit.
 
We are nearing the end of Easter season but the message of Easter lives on. It is a message that life rather than death has the final word.  It is a message about an ongoing relationship with the One who lives. If not, our faith is reduced to the memory of a Jesus who died once upon a time, long, long ago.
 
But how is it possible to relate to the living Jesus when he’s no longer here? The answer is that once Jesus leaves, his presence is made known in a different way—through the person of the Spirit. Jesus calls this person “Paraklētos.” The word “Paraclete” means “someone called alongside” to help or assist. “Paraclete” is also translated as Advocate, Counselor, and Comforter. Thus we can safely say that the Holy Spirit—is our counselor, advocate, intercessor, comforter, strengthener, and helper. Jesus says, “I will not leave you…I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”  What comforting words!
 
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not say that the Father will provide “an Advocate,” but “another Advocate.”  In other words, Jesus is also a Counselor; an Advocate. Indeed, the implication is that Jesus has been God’s Counselor for believers up to this point. “God will give you another counselor.”  It’s true that Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. They both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Both teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world. Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” doesn’t mean the Spirit is “another Jesus.” Rather, the Spirit continues Jesus’ work of love in the world. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit will continue the work of Jesus—with the same challenges—the same blessings—the same provision for a full life, a whole life—shalom—in this life and in the life to come.
 
God’s Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—is something our world needs now more than ever. Even though we may think of ourselves as so modern—so progressive—so educated—where has it all gotten us? As one author notes,
 

The world has in fact begun to crack. The moment of truth for humanity seems to have arrived. We seem destined for destruction at our own hands. But behold, miracle of miracles, out of the cracks a light shines. The venomous snake has not crushed the light. The light burns. It gives warmth. It gives hope. And as the dreamer timidly advances towards the light, he discovers that there are many, many others who are also moving toward it from different directions—from behind iron curtains, from across human barriers, from behind the walls of our own frightened souls. Yes, we all need that light, for that light is the only hope…[v]

 
We all need that light—it is our only hope—still this third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—is not often a topic of discussion, is it?  I once read somewhere that if the influence of the Holy Spirit were removed from the early church, 90 percent of the work would have ceased. While if the Holy Spirit were removed from most modern day churches, 90 percent of the work would continue. How incredibly sad, and I fear, how incredibly true. On our faith journey, do we even recognize the Spirit as our guide, our comforter, our constant companion?  Have we fooled ourselves into believing that we can do this on our own? Or is it the case that we are afraid of power that blows like the wind—wherever God chooses—whenever God chooses?
 
Understandings of the Holy Spirit often fall into one of two camps. On one extreme, the work of the Spirit leads to highly excited worship like speaking in tongues—and we are not “those” people. On the other extreme, the Spirit is some vague something out there—beyond us—that can’t be named—that has little to do with us in this day and time. Surely there is wiser path to tread.  Surely there is a way to embrace this Holy Being that Jesus says will be here with us in his stead. We want that! Don’t we?  The promise Jesus makes, “I will not leave you,” do not our hearts yearn to be on the receiving end of that promise?
 
In a couple of weeks, on June 4th, we will celebrate Pentecost. As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, it puzzles me why the church goes to such lengths to celebrate the seasons of Christmas and Easter while barely giving a nod to Pentecost. Pentecost marks the birth of the church—the arrival of the Holy Spirit for the Children of the Way. Shouldn’t it be celebrated with as much gusto as Christmas and Easter?  I believe so! I hope you do, too!
 
Pentecost is a critical event in our faith story so folks, get ready! In two weeks, we are going to have a party. You will need to get all dressed up in red or orange or yellow—festive colors of flames to mark an extraordinary day. Our sanctuary will be decorated beautifully. I know this is true because Becky and Jeff Stewart are in charge of the sanctuary décor and since they are the founders and organizers of the Father Daughter Valentine Dance—they have been checked off on all things red!
 
There will be balloons and cake and punch and we will sing “Happy Birthday” to the church. It is a celebration you do not want to miss—make plans to be here—spread the word—bring a friend! The chosen frozen are thawing out!
 
We are Easter people, nearing the end of Easter season and looking ahead to the Ascension.  It is good that we have taken the incredible journey from resurrection to this moment in time.  It is good to begin looking ahead to the promise of another Advocate, who leads us into all truth and equips us for the work ahead—the work of God’s love! And make no mistake, we need the Advocate, the Counselor, promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.  For, in the words of Charles Spurgeon, “What can a hammer do without the hand that grasps it, and what can we do without the Spirit of God?”
 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 

[i] See Mark 13

[ii] See Matthew 28:16-20

[iii] See John 20:19-23

[iv] See Acts 1:4-9

[v] Choan-Seng Song, The Compassionate God, 260.

Getting There

“Getting There”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 14, 2017

5th Sunday of Easter

John 14:1-16

 

Recently a clergy friend and I got into a discussion about Jesus being the Way to the Father and Christians being known as “People of the Way” in the early church. Soon our conversation took a different turn when I mentioned the modern day GPS, which can help us along the way from point A to point B—that is, unless something goes awry. My friend laughed and said, “That reminds me of a road sign I once saw that read: Truckers: Your GPS is wrong. You can’t get to Route 10 from here.”  I was reminded of all this a couple of weeks ago when I was on my way to meet someone in Madison, Florida. When my GPS instructed me to turn left, I did, but I went no further because what was in front of me was a long, dirt road—one that was clearly NOT my destination.
 
Those of us who rely on a GPS to guide us to unfamiliar places surely have stories to tell. My most dramatic “GPS gone awry” story happened several years ago in Atlanta. When I was a reference laboratory manager, I ventured to Atlanta many times on business—but I always had the good fortune to fly into the city and be driven around in a company car. Later, when I enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary to begin work on my D.Min, getting to and from Decatur became my responsibility. I wasn’t worried, though. After all I had my newfangled GPS—albeit a basic model with few bells and whistles. Fortunately, for my first trip I did have the good sense to take printed directions with me because I knew I wanted to go west on I-40 and then south on I-75—Instead of over the mountains and through the woods into Asheville. So off I went and sure enough I had to listen to Miss Priss’ monologue, “Turn right,” when I wanted to go left; “Make a u-turn,” when I had no intention of doing so; and “Recalculating…recalculating.” Somewhere near Knoxville, however, Miss Priss and I were on the same page and all went well.
 
For the two weeks that I had classes, I had a couple of opportunities to explore new areas of Atlanta using my handy dandy GPS—which was loads of fun. But by the last day of class I was eager to get home. So imagine my excitement when I learned class would be ending early. Wonderful! Out of the city before Friday rush hour!  I practically ran to the car, started the engine, tapped the “Home” icon on the GPS, and left Decatur. Speedily making my way homeward, I was one happy camper—that is—until it hit me. I didn’t have my hard copy of the directions. My mind began racing. Where had I left them? Were they in my suitcase? Had I lost them?  And that’s when I realized I had been taken hostage by my GPS. I had no choice but to agree with Miss Priss and head over the mountains and through the woods—toward Asheville. It was a lovely drive and I arrived home safely—but it was not the way I had planned on getting there. 
 
Our reading from John is a part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. Standing at the edge of his own grave, Jesus takes the time to assure his followers that his death is not the end but the beginning of the “way” ahead. He tells them he’s going to prepare a place for them. Jesus can prepare the way because Jesus is the way. But the disciples are confused—skeptical, really. Thomas wants to be shown the Way and Philip wants to be shown the Father. They are unable to comprehend Jesus is both.
 
As mystifying as it may be, our final destination is one we’ve already reached—it’s in our hearts. Jesus is with us and in us. Do we believe it? Or has some wrong path led us to a place where we are living like the proverbial deep sea fisherman, who spends his life fishing for minnows while standing on a whale. As believers in Jesus Christ, we stand on the waters of our baptism—loved by God, chosen by God, and equipped by God to go into God’s world and make a difference in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Great is the mystery of our faith!
 
Even though Jesus spends time with his disciples and explains the nature of his ministry and pending death—they remain confused. There is so much they don’t understand; may never understand. It is the same for us. I wonder though, at the end of the day, if the disciples are more accepting of the mystery of God than we are. In our day and time, we depend on scientific data for everything. We shy away from mystery because it can’t be explained and it can’t be controlled and let’s face it, even in our faith walk—we yearn to be in control. With this mindset though, have we set out to define, confine, and finally reduce God to a more manageable deity? Could it be that embracing the mystery of God might be a good first step toward a way of better understanding who we are, and more importantly whose we are?
 
In his gospel, John routinely leaves room for the mystery of God. In so doing, he seems to pull us into a greater reality which is this: We know only a whisper of God—the fringe of the holy—the outskirts of the divine. The writer of Job reminds us,
 

Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; he distills his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop upon mortals abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thundering of his pavilion?

 
Often, when I am studying scripture in preparation for writing a sermon, I read several biblical translations to gain a broader perspective. When I read today’s text from The Message, I found Eugene Peterson’s interpretation to be quite helpful. Listen to the words of Jesus in more modern-day language:
 

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”
 
Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”
 
Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”
 
“You’ve been with me all this time, Philip, and you still don’t understand? To see me is to see the Father. So how can you ask, ‘Where is the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you aren’t mere words. I don’t just make them up on my own. The Father who resides in me crafts each word into a divine act.
 
“Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see—these works. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it. That’s how the Father will be seen for who he is in the Son. I mean it. Whatever you request in this way, I’ll do.
 
“If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can’t take him in because it doesn’t have eyes to see him, doesn’t know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!

 
Undoubtedly God is beyond our comprehension and there is much we do not know but because of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, we know enough. When Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he makes one of the highest Christological claims in the Gospel. As a result we know Jesus is the way to the Father because Jesus is the Father. And the place Jesus is preparing in God’s own life is eternal life, which has been described as simply another name for God.
 
Through Jesus and the Spirit, we are invited to join the dance of God’s love made real in the world. Great is the mystery of our faith!