I Am the Bread of Life

Her real name was Katherine Brosnahan (1962-2018), but the world knew her by her professional name, Kate Spade. She was an American fashion designer and businesswoman. She seemed to have it all. After working in the accessories department at the fashion magazine Mademoiselle, she and her husband, Andy, identified a market for quality handbags in 1993. They began to manufacture handbags to fill that void. Those handbags grew in popularity and became a symbol of sophistication in New York City in the 1990s. Those handbags sold for approximately $500 apiece. How successful was Kate Spade? Her business today is worth $2.4 billion. She seemed to have it all. She was rich and was respected by her peers. That was what made the news so shocking. On June 5, 2018, at the age of 55 years old, Kate Spade committed suicide. She hung herself in her Manhattan apartment. Why would someone with so much to live for take their own life? There is no easy answer, because life can be complex. However, her sad death makes a clear point. There is more to life than the things of this world. Are you chasing after fullness, or are you looking for satisfaction? That question takes us to today’s scripture lesson.

We find ourselves today in the Gospel of John. It was written by the apostle, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” approximately the year 85 AD. Prior to our reading in the sixth chapter, Jesus has fed the five thousand, with five barley loaves and two small fish. It is one of the great miracles in the Bible. How great was the miracle? The story is found in all four Gospels. There is no way of overstating Jesus’s popularity. The crowd was wild about Jesus and they followed him to the other side of the sea. Their question for Jesus was how he got there, but Jesus saw the real issue. The crowd was consumed with the issue of food. There is only one problem with food. Food, and the feeling of fullness, doesn’t last very long. Have you ever eaten a big meal and pushed yourself away from table proclaiming, “I will never eat again!”, only to find yourself hours later standing in front of your refrigerator looking for something to eat? Jesus has nothing against food, but he knows there is more to life than food. The crowd wanted more loaves and fish, but Jesus offers himself, the bread of life. There is more than this temporary world; there is the eternal. Don’t miss the next line. In many ways we play the part of the crowd. Many pursue fullness, not satisfaction. The things of this world may fill us up, but they won’t satisfy. How many people do you know who are pursuing fullness?

In the fifth century, a man named Arenius was determined to live a holy life. So he abandoned the comforts of Egyptian society to follow an austere lifestyle in the desert. Yet, whenever he visited the great city of Alexandria, he spent time wandering through its bazaars. Asked why, he explained that his heart rejoiced at the sight of all the things he didn’t need.

There are many in our society who need to ponder those words. We live in a society flooded with goods and gadgets. Each one promises fullness. They are things we can live without, but we must have them. This is the problem: Very few can afford everything. That is one of the reasons credit card debt has become a national problem. How many credit cards do you own? How much credit card debt do you carry? Did you know the average American holds three credit cards? Did you know the average American is $5700 in credit debt? On average, Americans pay 16.46% in credit card interest. Americans owe a total of $1.04 trillion in credit card debt.  (Those statistics came from Business Insider.) Don’t expect it to get better. Our televisions, radios, mailboxes and newspapers are filled with advertisements or suggestions on what to buy. Each one promises to make you and your loved ones happier. Like the crowd in the Bible story, many buy to make themselves full. Can I ask you a question? How long does your purchase keep you happy? Just like the crowd in the Bible story, there is nothing wrong with buying things. But, don’t expect those things to make you satisfied. They are all temporary, not eternal. Our society is chasing fullness, not satisfaction. So, what do the experts tell us is the source of true contentment?

As I researched that question this week, I found a variety of lists. They were all different, but they were all the same. I decided to condense those lists into my own list. Here are four things personally satisfied people do:

          Personally satisfied people keep investing. I am not talking about financial investing, I am talking about investing in relationships. Sometimes those relationships are family members. Sometimes those relationships are friends. Research tells us, if you have a friend from a different generation from yours, it is a bonus. Our friendships keep us mentally and physically strong. Our friendships help us weather the bad times in our lives. Our friends help us improve the quality of our lives. God never designed us to live in isolation. We are social animals. One of the great fears in our lives is loneliness, so go out and spend time with people. Personally satisfied people invest their lives in other people. If you have one good friend, then you are a rich person.

          Personally satisfied people keep learning. What do you still want to learn? The day you stop learning something new is the day you become irrelevant. Lifelong learning helps you prepare for the unexpected and expands your profile. Lifelong learning boosts your confidence and generates new ideas. Lifelong learning will change your perspective and cultivate your leadership skills. The choice is yours. You can be part of the modern world, or you can be as relevant as the Amish. Personally satisfied people keep learning. What do you still want to learn?

          Personally satisfied people keep dreaming. What do you still want to do? God never intended us to live in the past. God never intended us to worship the past. God designed us for a purpose. God expects us to embrace today and dream of a better world tomorrow. Our dreams or goals build our self-confidence, hold us accountable, and help us live our lives to the fullest. Are you living, or are you just waiting to die? What do you still want to do?

          Personally satisfied people keep trusting. How far do you trust Jesus? Go back to the scripture with me one more time. Jesus had just fed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. It was a great miracle and it was a great moment in the lives of the five thousand. When they had finished eating, they couldn’t hold another bite. But, a short time later they were hungry again. They looked to Jesus to feed them again. Jesus saw the problem. The crowd was preoccupied with earthly food, but Jesus was more interested in eternal food. The crowd wanted to be full again, but Jesus wanted them to be spiritually satisfied. With this in mind, Jesus tells the crowd and us, “I am the bread of life.” In a world that is running after fullness, we long for satisfaction. That is why we will never stop trusting in Jesus. Eternal satisfaction only comes from him.

It became part of my Sunday night routine. After a busy morning and a slow afternoon, I would turn my television on to CNN at about 10:00. My wife, Kathryn was down for the day, so I would watch alone. Regularly, I would watch Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Have you ever watched it? The show won ten Primetime Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award. It is a travel and food show, but it was more. Bourdain (1956-2018) would slide in his own opinion on various human conditions around the world. I found Bourdain’s own story fascinating. It was as diverse as his show. The former cocaine, heroin, and LSD user graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was considered one of the most influential chefs in the world. Some of his shows were dark, but some of the shows sucked me in. I had been to some of the places he was visiting, and I longed to go to others. This is the truth: He was living the life I wanted. While I was spending most of my life in the shadows of Youngstown, Ohio, Bourdain was traveling around the world, eating wonderful food, drinking intriguing drinks, talking to bright, insightful people. Through my eyes, Anthony Bourdain seemed to have the perfect life; he had it all. That is why the news was so shocking. You remember. Three days after Kate Spade’s death, on June 8, 2018, at the age of 61, Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. He hung himself in France. I couldn’t believe it. He left behind a young, pretty wife and his only child, a daughter. I was in shock, and I think I’m still in denial. When I tried to watch the reruns after he was gone, I found myself emotionally upset. Why would a guy who had everything in this world take his own life? The answer is in our scripture lesson for this morning.

The answer is, everything in this world isn’t enough. We live in a world that is chasing after fullness. The problem is, the state of being full is only a temporary situation. Only Jesus will satisfy you for eternity. Let me end with this question: How satisfied are you?

I Am

We find ourselves in the third chapter of Exodus. It is only the third chapter, but much has already happened to Moses. He was born a slave, raised in the palace, and is now a fugitive of the law. For this reason, Moses never intended to return to Egypt, but God had a different plan for his life. You remember the story, because you have seen the movie. God’s Chosen People were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for help. God heard their prayers and decided to send Moses back to Egypt to liberate them. That brings us to our scripture reading. The scene begins innocently.

Moses is tending his flock in the wilderness. The tranquility of that scene is broken when Moses notices something unusual. There is a bush burning that is not being consumed by the flames. Moses draws nearer to the bush. When Moses is close enough to hear the crackling of the fire, God, Himself, speaks to him. If you distill the scene down to its basic elements, it is a conversation between God and Moses. God makes the first move. First, God tells Moses not to get any closer. Second, God tells Moses to take his sandals off, because that was holy ground. Third, God identifies himself. He is the God of Moses’ ancestors. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses does not question God. He accepts God at his word, and that insight fills Moses with fear. The scripture says it clearly, Moses was afraid. Moses hid his face, but God continued to speak. At first, Moses must have liked what he heard. God had heard the prayers of his people. Their lives were hard, and God intended to help them. Their miserable existence will be replaced by a bright future. God will give them a new home, a promised land, which is close to perfection. Moses liked those words, but he hated the words that followed. God was sending him to liberate his people from Egyptian rule. Those were hard words for him to accept. His past came back to haunt him. After all, he was a fugitive and he had decided long ago not to return. He had built a good life away from the Egyptian authorities. His divine task seemed overwhelming. Who was he; what resources did he possess to liberate his people? Why would the Pharaoh, the master of the Egyptian Empire, listen to him, a shepherd? It is a good question, but God’s answer is not reassuring. God simply says, he will be with him. Then, Moses tries to escape his divine calling. He says, what if the people themselves don’t listen to me? Then Moses asked God a question that showed the people were being assimilated into Egyptian culture. The Egyptians believed that if you knew someone’s name, you had a certain amount of control over them. Moses said, the people will want to know your name. So, Moses asked God what his name was. And God responded, “I AM WHO I AM.” Do you know of anyone named I AM WHO I AM? Let me state the obvious.

Names are important! Names are not just a way to identify us. If that were the case, we would be given numbers, not names. If you were the oldest of three children, then you would be number one. If you were the youngest of three children, then you would be number three. If you were the middle child, then you would be number two. If you were the youngest child in the Duggar family, then you would be number nineteen. Names are not just about identification, names are about identity. Our names are influenced by our culture. The most popular baby names in America today are Olivia and Noah, followed by Emma and Liam. The most popular baby names today in South Korea are Hayun and Doyun. Sometimes our name represents something about our family core values. My middle name is Quentin. My father’s middle name was Quentin. Why Quentin? The reason is quite simple. During the World War I, Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Quentin, was killed. My grandparents admired Theodore Roosevelt. In memory of his son, the family middle name went from Eli to Quentin. Don’t tell me names are not important. (Can someone explain to me why Michael Jackson named his son Blanket?)

Rob Fuquay is the Senior Pastor of the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has written a variety of things that have been published. One of the books he has had published is called The God You Can Know: The I Am Sayings of Jesus. I would encourage you to read that book over the next few weeks. It is the primary source for this sermon series, I Am. He says that those two little words, I Am, can have a profound influence on our spiritual development. He may have a point. Just think about it for a moment. Let me ask you this question first:

What does God’s name, I Am, tell us about him? It is in the present tense. His name is not “I Was” or “I Will Be.” When God called himself, I AM WHAT I AM, he was saying he is present. God does not hide; God is always with us. God is dependable and faithful, so God can be trusted. God likes to be recognized. He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden and he had a special relationship with Abraham. Think about it for a moment. God is with us this evening! God is present. He is the great I AM! That leads me to another question.

What do the I Am sayings of Jesus tell us about him? When Jesus used the seven “I Am” phrases, he aligned himself with the God of Moses. In other words, he was saying he was God. Each one of the “I Am” phrases discloses something about his early ministry. When Jesus said…

  • I am the bread of life, he was speaking of knowing God’s satisfaction.
    • I am the light of the world, he was speaking of God’s guidance.
    • I am the good shepherd, he was speaking of God’s care.
    • I am the true vine, he was speaking of God’s power.
    • I am the way, the truth and the life, he was speaking of God’s way.
    • I am the resurrection and the life, he was speaking of God’s possibilities.

Jesus is saying people’s spiritual needs and human longings can be met by him.

When God gave Moses his name, I AM WHO I AM, he was telling him he was an ever-present, dependable God. When Jesus made the “I Am” statements, he was saying he was God, and he was telling the world about the vastness of his ministry. Those things are theological in nature and can’t be questioned. However, there is a practical side to I AM. This evening, I do not want to end this meditation with a story or a quote. I want to end this meditation with a quiz. There are only two questions to this quiz. It is a quiz about yourself. This is question number one:

          How do you complete the phrase, I Am….?

Don’t answer too quickly. Don’t get hung up on your physical appearance. Things like, I am fat, or I am short. Don’t get hung up on the role you play in this world. Thinks like, I am a teacher, nurse or an engineer. Don’t get hung up on your relationships. Things like, I am a wife or a grandfather. Don’t get hung up on your imperfections. Things like, I am stubborn, a bigot, a gossip, or homophobic. Don’t get hung up on your core values. Things like, I am patriotic or responsible. Go all the way down to your heart of hearts and ask yourself the question. There is only one correct answer. You must say, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ”. That insight should shake you at your very core. That leads us to the second question in this short quiz:

What is holding you back from a closer walk with Jesus?

The journey begins this evening and it will be completed on Easter morning. Never forget it: As a disciple of Jesus Christ you are supposed to be a little more like Jesus every day. What is holding you back from a closer walk with Jesus? Answering that question correctly will change everything.

We Believe in Heaven

We find ourselves today in the fourteenth chapter of John. It is late in Jesus’ earthly ministry. He uttered these words as he ate that last supper with the disciples. The crowd from Palm Sunday has gone home. The fig tree has been cursed. The lessons in the temple courts have been completed. It is crunch time, and the disciples can’t ignore the truth. The end is near, and Jesus is going to be leaving them. The disciples are upset, and Jesus tries to comfort them. However, this is the miracle: The words meant to comfort the disciples many years ago comfort us today. What is the topic that is comforting to everyone? Jesus talks about heaven and tells them there are many rooms in heaven. That is a good thing, because everyone wants to go to heaven. Do you know of anyone who doesn’t want to go to heaven? Let me state the obvious.

Our world has always been fascinated with the afterlife. Ours is not the first generation. You can also find that fascination in the Bible. Do you remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? In this world, they lived at the opposite ends of life. The rich man had everything; the poor man, Lazarus, had nothing. The tables are turned in the afterlife. Lazarus is taken to be with Abraham, and the rich man goes to hell. It is a story about punishment and reward in the afterlife. It is a story that reminds us that every generation has been fascinated with the afterlife. It is important that you know that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable. In parables, the characters aren’t named. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is simply a story. It is a simple story that is not just isolated to the Bible. It is a traditional story that is found in various forms in several cultures and sacred writings. That fact underscores the point that our world has always been fascinated with the afterlife, and our generation is no exception. Our world is still fascinated with the afterlife. How many afterlife stories have you heard?

Have you heard Don Piper’s story? On January 18, 1989, Don Piper, a Baptist minister, was on his way home from a conference in Texas. He was crossing a bridge in his Ford Taurus, when he was struck by a semi. When the paramedics arrived, there was no sign of life and they covered him with a tarp. The medical examiner was called, and another minister who happened by prayed over his lifeless body. It is during that time, Piper says he went to heaven. He said, heaven was both amazing and beautiful. He met his great grandparents and joined a heavenly choir. He was gone for 90 minutes and when he returned, he began to tell his story. To date, he has told the story of his time in heaven to 3,000 different audiences, written a book and made a movie. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people have heard his story. Do you believe Don Piper went to heaven for 90 minutes? We are fascinated with his story because we are fascinated with the afterlife.

Have you heard Colton story? When he was three years old, he had an emergency appendectomy. Three months later, he began to tell people that during the operation, he went to heaven. Colton began to describe events and people that seemed impossible for him to know about. He met his unborn miscarried sister and his great-grandfather who had died thirty years earlier. He said, Jesus visited him on a rainbow-colored horse. He said he sat in Jesus’s lap and Jesus comforted him, as angels sang to him. He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God. He told everyone, heaven is for real. Do you believe Colton went to heaven? We are fascinated with his story because we are fascinated with the afterlife.

Do you know of anyone who has an afterlife story? I do. When I served in the old St. Clairsville District, I had a parishioner by the name of Lois Barr. She was a wonderful person, who was a veteran nurse. When I met her, she was teaching nursing at a branch of Ohio University. Most of her experience came from a local emergency room. She would tell you, she had seen many die through the years. There is never a violent ending; it is a calming moment. One night, a man came in who had suffered a heart-attack. They did all they could do to save him, but he was gone. They kept working on him for several minutes, when suddenly his heart started beating again. In time, he opened his eyes and asked one question: “Why?” “Why did you bring me back here? Heaven was so beautiful.” People loved hearing Lois’s story because people are fascinated with the afterlife.

The topic of heaven is fascinating to Americans. This is the problem: Americans are fascinated with heaven, but we don’t know what the Bible teaches about heaven and how to get there. According to a 2014 Pew Research Group study, 74% of all Americans believe in the existence of heaven. The same study tells us, only 39% of Americans believe in the existence of hell. This is the saddest statistic: 54% of Americans believe good works are part of the formula for salvation. If that is the case, Jesus died in vain on the cross, because it is simply not true. Jesus is our only hope of experiencing heaven. Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Go back to the scripture one more time with me.

We are in the fourteenth chapter of John. Jesus is in the Upper Room with the disciples. The end is near. In a short time, Jesus will be arrested, tried twice and be placed on the cross to die. The Master did die, and he was placed in a tomb. Nothing happened on Saturday, but everything happened on Sunday. A few women made a discovery that changed our world. Jesus miraculously came back to life, proving to the world that he had defeated death. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith. Either you believe in the resurrection, or you don’t. The Apostle Paul understood the significance of the resurrection. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Perhaps, Jesus said it clearer in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said of himself, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”  In other words, without Jesus, your entrance into heaven is only a dream. Without Jesus, there is no salvation.

Several years ago, I was called by a local funeral home to officiate at a service for a man who had lived in the area. They called me because the man didn’t have a church home. As is my custom, I went to the calling hours the night before the service to meet the family. The man was single and left behind six children; three daughters and three sons. It was painful for them to sit there with me. The men sat on my left and the women sat on my right. For a couple of minutes we made small talk. Then, I made my move. I asked them the most generic of questions: Tell me something about your dad? On cue, they went silent and stared at their shoes. We sat there in silence for a minute, then one of the daughters looked at me and said, “There is one thing we know for sure, Dad is in heaven.” One of her brothers fired back, “If he is in heaven, then I don’t want to go. I never want to see him again” They all looked at me, and I said, “When it comes to the afterlife, there are only two options.”

Is there anyone here today who doesn’t want to go to heaven? The answer is no, because everyone wants to go to heaven. This is the truth: No one enters heaven without Jesus. Do you remember what William Barclay said? He said, “For the Christian, heaven is where Jesus is. We do not need to speculate on what heaven will be like. It is enough to know that we will forever be with him.”

We Believe in the Church

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide America, before Columbus discovered the New World or before Rome conquered their world, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name meant “The Lord Saves,” but we simply call him “Isaiah”. He is considered the greatest of the writing prophets. His writings reveal the full dimension of God’s judgement and salvation. His ministry began in 740 BC, so he was a contemporary of the prophets Amos, Hosea and Micah. Like several other prophets, Isaiah lived in politically stormy times. The Assyrian Empire was expanding, and Israel was in decline. We know certain things about him. He was a married man with two sons, who spent most of his life in Jerusalem. Tradition also tells us he died when he was sawed in half during the reign of Manasseh.

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah is a vision. The great prophet is experiencing God Himself. The first four verses of the text try to explain what he saw when he looked at God. The Lord is seated high and exalted. God’s robe filled the temple and He is surrounded by divine creatures. Don’t get lost in the details of the text; look at the text in general terms. Isaiah is experiencing God. It is one of the great moments in his life. This is where the text begins to speak to us. One of the primary reasons we come to church is to experience God.

Recently, the Pew Research Group asked 4,729 worshipping Americans why they attend church regularly. In our world, if you worship once a month, you are considered a regular worshipper. In the past, we considered anyone who only missed one Sunday a month a regular worshipper. Each person was permitted to answer more than once. This is what those regular worshippers said:

To please their family, spouse or partner (16%)

To meet new people (19%)

They feel obligated to go (31%)

To continue their family’s religious tradition (37%)

To be part of a faith community (57%)

They find the sermons valuable (59%)

For comfort in times of troubles or sorrow (66%)

To become a better person (68%)

So their children will have a moral foundation (69%)

To become closer to God (81%)

Do you understand what I just reported? 81% of regular worshippers go to church because they want to experience God. That figure is impressive.

Did you know that only 37% of Americans worship regularly? That means that 63% of Americans don’t worship regularly. However, that does not mean they don’t want to experience God. The same research group reported that non-worshippers don’t worship because of practical or personal reasons. They cite a lack of time or a difference of opinion with church officials. Non-worshippers are also not worshipping because of theological reasons. They say they can experience God in other places. They are not wrong. You can experience God walking in the woods. You can experience God walking on the beach. You can experience God on a golf course. We believe God is omnipresent. That means God is everywhere. That is why both worshippers and non-worshippers are jealous of Isaiah. He experienced God, and we all want to experience God. Augustine (356-430) once said, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”  However, our best opportunity to experience God is worshipping in church. As the spiritual leader of this church, I want to say this clearly. If you do not experience God in worship, then I have failed. This is painfully obvious: Church attendance does not guarantee a “God experience.”

History tells us the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) worshipped regularly, but he was not loved by everyone. His enemies noticed he failed to kneel at the appropriate moment during one worship service. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, “If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing.”  I hope that is not your story. We really come to church for one reason. We come to church to experience God!Nothing else really matters.

Have you ever noticed how many distractions exist within the life of the church? I am convinced Satan uses those distractions so that we won’t experience God. In other words, Satan promotes secondary things in the life of the church to a primary position. They are not always bad things; they can be good things. But they are not the best thing: God! Have you ever been so preoccupied during worship about some secondary thing within the life of the church that you didn’t experience God? The temperature is too low, or too high. The sound system is too loud, or too soft. The usher isn’t wearing a tie. The greeter didn’t know your name. The person next to you is annoying. The tables and chairs need to be set up for the next dinner. The preacher is too handsome 😊. I could go on, but you get the point. Satan doesn’t want you to experience God, so he promotes secondary things. How many secondary things have your attention right now? You have come to church for one reason, to experience God! Have you experienced God yet today? When was the last time you experienced God at church? Let me ask you a deeper question.

Have you ever been burned out? Within the life of the church there is a 90/10 rule. I have spoken of it in the past. It says 90% of the work within the life of the church is done by 10% of the people. You must determine whether you are part of the 90% or the 10%. If you are part of the 90% who do next to nothing, let me ask you to do something. Something is better than nothing. If you are part of the 10%, let me warn you to be careful. Maybe this is your story: You got involved in the church because you wanted to experience God. However, you also wanted to do your part. You rolled up your sleeves and went to work. You taught Sunday school. You sang in the choir. You went to every work day and worked every dinner. You have a church key in your pocket. You have served on every committee three times. There is a dangerous side to volunteering at church. It will blind you from why you went to church in the first place. All you wanted to do was experience God! Can I ask you a question? Have you ever gone to church and never even thought about God, because there was work to do? I am not telling you to quit all your jobs. This church runs on volunteers. I am warning you to protect yourself. Church burnout is a reality. I have seen it hundreds of times. The reason you came to church today was to experience God. If you are not experiencing God, then there is something truly wrong.

My first United Methodist appointment in the East Ohio Annual Conference was the Morristown Charge in the old Saint Clairsville District. My charge consisted of three small membership congregations, Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock. I would preach at Morristown at 9:30. I would preach at Lloydsville, where I lived, at 10:30 and I would preach at Bannock at 11:30. It was an eighteen-mile loop to cover all the churches. I always thought it was unique that the three churches didn’t know one another. Like many small membership churches, Morristown and Bannock were dominated by a single extended family.

At the Lloydsville Church, the church was dominated by one person. His name was Wayne Randall. However, no one called him Wayne, everyone called him “Dub.” Honestly, he was a great guy. There is no other way to say it. Dub did everything at that church. He was the person who unlocked the door early on Sunday morning, and he locked the door early in the afternoon. He taught Sunday school and read the scripture during worship. He was the guy who mowed the lawn in the summer, and he was the one who shoveled the snow in the winter. He was the one who painted the sanctuary, and he was the head chef at the community dinners. He was the most generous person when the plate was passed, and he was the one who handed me my monthly $375 paycheck, because he was also the church’s treasurer. He did everything in the life of that church for one reason. He loved his mother. He promised his mother on her deathbed that he would not let the church close during his lifetime. He was a good man and a good son. He worked hard to keep the Lloydsville United Methodist Church open. However, Dub was not a young man. One day he pulled me to the side and told me he needed knee surgery. He needed my help to find people to do his church jobs. I did, and Dub promised me he would return in a few weeks. Dub’s surgery was more complex than expected and his knee got infected. Dub’s several weeks away turned into several months. I kept up with Dub during his absence. I visited him or called him regularly. I would always ask him the same question, when are you coming back? One day, I noticed Dub was healthy. That made me wonder. My question changed from, “When are you coming back to church,” to “Are you coming back to church?” He just smiled and said, “Russ, I want to be honest with you. I feel liberated. I loved my mother, but she is gone. I’m not coming back to church because I don’t want all those jobs. The church seems to be doing fine without me, and I’m doing better without the church.” Then, came the painful words no minister wants to hear. “It is not you, but I’m attending another church. I just want to go to church and worship God.” Dub never did return to the Lloydsville United Methodist because we had burned him out.

I hope that is not your story. If you aren’t experiencing God at church, then you really haven’t been to church. Do you remember the quote from Augustine? He once said, “Because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”

We Believe in the Holy Spirit

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide America, before Columbus discovered the New World or before Rome conquered their world, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name meant, YAHWEH is God, but we call him Joel. He is one of the Minor Prophets. He is not considered minor because his message is unimportant. He is considered minor because his book is brief. Joel lived, according to the scholars, during the ninth century B.C. Like most of the prophets, Joel’s generation was suffering. The people were experiencing both a severe drought and a plague of locusts. The people felt like victims, but Joel offers them words of hope. God has not forgotten them. They will be restored and refreshed, once they repent. Our reading for today tells us how God plans to refresh and restore his people. God’s method of choice is the Holy Spirit. Joel’s generation heard about the Holy Spirit, but they never experienced the Holy Spirit. God never seems to be in a hurry. God wouldn’t send the Holy Spirit for another 900 years. You know the story. We look at it annually.

It had been fifty days since Jesus had been resurrected. That makes it the day of Pentecost, a Hebrew festival to thank God for the harvest. As requested by Jesus, the disciples are together in Jerusalem, including Judas Iscariot’s replacement, Matthias. (Acts 1:4). After 900 years of waiting, the Holy Spirit suddenly arrived. The author of this text, Luke, tells us the Holy Spirit was evident in two ways. First, there was a violent wind. The Holy Spirit was always symbolized by wind (Ezekiel 37:9, 14, John 3:8). Second, there seemed to be tongues of fires that separated and came to rest on each one of them. Acts 2:4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”  The word ALL is important because it was the first time the Holy Spirit was given to everyone. The question is not, if the Holy Spirit is available to us. The question is, have you experienced the Holy Spirit? This is the truth: Church membership or participation does not guarantee an experience with the Holy Spirit. That is painfully true. You can even find that to be the case in the Bible.

Do you remember the story of Apollos from the nineteenth chapter of Acts? Paul is on his way to Rome and stops at various communities along the way. One of the places he visits is the Ephesus. The church in Ephesus was headed by a man named Apollos. He had many gifts to offer the church. He was an educated, natural leader. His only limitation was his ignorance of the Holy Spirit. His understanding of the faith was based on moralism, not grace. Paul recognized this deficiency and corrected the situation. On the spot, Paul baptized Apollos in the name of Jesus, laying hands on him. Apollos was not the only one who had never experienced the Holy Spirit in that church. The scriptures tell us, twelve men experienced the Holy Spirit that day. So, let me ask you our question again. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit? This is a more basic question:

Who is the Holy Spirit? We believe, the Holy Spirit is a member of the trinity. What does that mean? We believe in a triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe there is one God with distinct manifestations. When we speak of God the Father, we are speaking of God as the creator. When we speak of God the Son, we are speaking of God the redeemer. Jesus was the incarnation of God, God in human form, who came to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. When we speak of God the Holy Spirit, we are speaking of God the life giver. We believe the Holy Spirit is accessible to all believers, and the Holy Spirit helps us do ministry. The Holy Spirit magnifies our witness, enhances our prayers, and gives us gifts to serve God. Great things happen when the Holy Spirit is present. Nothing happens when the Holy Spirit is absent. The question is not, if you understand the Holy Spirit? The question is, have you experienced the Holy Spirit? I can’t answer that question for you. I can only answer that question for myself. The answer is yes! This is my story. I hope you can relate.

I enrolled at Mount Union College in the Fall of 1975. When you go to college, everyone asks you the same two questions: Where are you from, and what is your major? I answered both questions proudly. I was from Warren, where everyone is a little smarter and better looking, and I was a religion major. However, I never earned my religion degree. My Bachelor’s Degree is in Business Administration. Do you know why I didn’t earn my Religion Degree? My answer is almost comical. I am addicted to public speaking now, but as a college student, I was terrified of public speaking. It all changed one night. I was walking alone down the side streets near the campus. I was anxious about school and was clueless about my future. As I walked, I prayed in a soft voice. I don’t remember the exact words, but it went like this: Help me! On that night, God heard my prayer. There is no other way to explain it. The Holy Spirit came over me, and I felt a wonderful calm. All my senses were heightened. It was like I was hearing for the first time. It was like I was seeing for the first time. I was filled with a new confidence and a wonderfully satisfying peace. I really didn’t know what the future held for me, but I knew everything was going to be fine. Because, God was with me. I went back to campus a changed person. On that night, I didn’t know what happened to me, but something happened. I would never be the same again. Several years later, I found out what happened. I was in a seminary classroom studying the Holy Spirit. The topic that day was sanctification. I was sanctified, set apart, for a special purpose.

I rarely speak of that night, because I don’t want to sound weird, but that night changed my life. The Holy Spirit was with me then, and I know the Holy Spirit is with me now. I do not completely understand the Holy Spirit, but I do know it is vital to my life. This is the truth: I have never struggled in the ministry. It is like the Holy Spirit goes ahead of me, helping me. The ministry comes naturally to me. There just always seems to be a good person to help me. There are many good people who overlook my shortcomings. I have survived in the ministry not because I am talented, intelligent or handsome. I have survived in the ministry because the Holy Spirit is with me, helping me along the way. Yes, I have experienced the Holy Spirit. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit?

One of the great dates in Methodist history is May 24, 1738. For it was on that date that John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, experienced the Holy Spirit first-hand. It was his sanctification experience. It happened on Aldersgate Street in London. He never spoke much about that experience. In his journal he simply wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” However, that experience changed his life. He was transformed from a “loser” into one of the great figures in church history. When he died in 1791, he had 79,000 followers in England and the United States. His movement lived beyond his life. In 1957, there were 40 million Methodists in the world. It all began in a little chapel on Aldersgate Street.

Dr. Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) recognized the significance of that spot and went to visit it. When he arrived, it was dark and damp. He read the single bronze plaque on the wall. It read: “On this spot, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed.” He read it several times, once out loud. He then retreated to the corner of the chapel and found a pew. In the silence, he thought and prayed about that moment in history. Suddenly, he heard the door open and watched a shadowy character walk in. It was an older gentleman. (He was 61😊) He walked straight toward the plaque. Thinking he was alone, he too read it out loud: “On this spot, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley’s hear was strangely warmed.” Yet, instead of sitting in silence, the older gentleman spoke. He said, “Do it again, Lord. Do it again for me!” I would add, do it again for us!

This is morning, I want to end with a challenge. I challenge you to pray that you experience the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to have an opinion about the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to know something about the Holy Spirit. You must experience the Holy Spirit, because once you experience the Holy Spirit, you will be changed. Do you remember what John Nelson Darby once said? He said, “The presence of the Holy Spirit is the keystone of all of our hopes.”

We Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

We find ourselves today in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. According to the text, the Master is in Jerusalem. The sun has just risen, and Jesus was in the outer courts of the Temple, teaching those who had assembled. We do not know Jesus’s topic, but we do know Jesus was interrupted by his enemies, the teachers of the law. In a show of force, they suddenly appear with a woman, who has sinned. No one debates her guilt. Everyone agrees she has done wrong. She was guilty of adultery. (Isn’t it interesting that only the woman appeared on that day. The last time I checked, it takes two to commit adultery.) You know the truth. We live in sexually liberal times; they lived in sexually conservative times. The law demanded the adulterer be stoned, so the law demanded this woman be stoned.

Verse five says, they asked Jesus his opinion, “What do you say?” Verse six says, they asked this question for one reason. They wanted to trap Jesus with his own words.  The teachers of the law were not interested in justice. They were not interested in the woman. They were not really interested in protecting the law. They were only interested in one thing, eliminating Jesus. Their question was well crafted. It is a question with no right answer. It is like asking the question, “Do you still beat your wife?” If you answer, “No,” then it means you used to beat your wife. If you answer, “Yes,” then it means you are still beating your wife. If Jesus says, “No,” then it looks like he is ignoring the laws of Moses. If Jesus says, “Yes,” then he is breaking Roman law, which refused to permit the Jews to take a life. It appears to be the perfect trap, but Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach the crowd about the Kingdom of God. How is sin handled in the Kingdom of God? This story models for us how God deals with sin. This story reminds us how we deal with sin. God’s ways and our ways are not the same. Can I ask you a question?

Why is it so easy for us to identify someone else’s sins? That is what is happening in the scripture lesson for today.Look at the text with me. No one in the story is questioning this woman’s guilt. She was, so to speak, caught with her pants down. We do not know the details of the story. We do not know if this was her first offense. We do not know if she was a repeat offender. The details really don’t matter. The only thing that really matters is her guilt. Do you know of anyone who is guilty? Do you know of anyone who will never be forgiven? When that person’s name is spoken, everyone goes for their favorite rock. How easy it is to identify other people’s sins.

You can ask any member of the clergy in this area and they know “Sarah”. There is no other way to say it. She is a mess. She could lose a few pounds. She could wash her hair and her body. She smells like a giant cigarette, which explains why her breathing is labored. She always has a different story, yet every story ends the same way: she needs financial help. She has come to, or called, this church countless times. Yes, I have helped her two times. However, I will never help her again.  I will tell you why.

One day, Sarah came in and told me she was hungry, because she hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. I was really touched by her story. No one should be hungry. I gave her some time and I gave her a gift certificate to a local grocery store. I prayed with her and walked her to the door. I treated her with dignity and respect. Because, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. As we stood at the door, she thanked me one more time with tears in her eyes. She was heading to the grocery store, so she could eat. From the door, I watched her walk toward her ancient SUV. I felt good that I had helped someone. Then, I looked inside of her vehicle. I was surprised to see other people. Maybe I should have given her a larger certificate? Maybe they were hungry too? However, do you know what surprised me the most? The people inside the van threw a bag out of the back window. A sea of paper and plastic spread throughout the parking lot. I went out to pick up the trash and discovered they had been to Taco Bell. Someone had eaten a burrito supreme. Someone else must have eaten a volcano taco. The reality hit me, and I felt like a fool. She got me. There is no other way to say it. Sarah had lied to me. They had been eating! That explains why she could lose a few pounds. On that day, I labeled her a sinner! I will never help her again, because I feel like I was part of her problem. Sarah reminds me that it is easy to identify the sins of others. However, this is equally true: We are blind to our own sins.

Why is it so hard to identify our own sins? Look at the text with me again. Everyone is standing around the adulterous woman. They are holding their favorite stone and are hungry for justice. Everyone is ready to execute the sentence, when Jesus ruins the party. Verse 7 says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Suddenly everyone drops their rock and walks away. Why? Because, no one is sinless. Everyone is guilty. Everyone had to admit they were a sinner. There is not a single sinless person in this crowd. That means, you are a sinner!

John Lennon (1940-1980) was shot by Mark David Chapman (born 1955) on December 8, 1980. He was entering his apartment building, The Dakota, in New York City. When the news was announced, a crowd of people assembled on that spot to remember him. Lennon was dead and Chapman was sent to Attica. He is still in prison today. Through the years, journalists have interviewed him. One of them asked Chapman, what he regrets most about the whole event. He responded, “I am saddened people seem to misunderstand me. I am not a bad person. I only killed one person.” How difficult it is to identify our own sins. How easy it is to identify the sins of others.

One of the great traditions within the life of the church is baptism. As a pastor, it is rewarding to baptize our youngest. I like to carry the baby around and introduce them to their new church family. Baptisms are important for three reasons. First, baptisms are like a coming-out party. Second, baptisms are a commitment. The parents are promising to raise that child within the faith. The church is promising to create a Christian environment. Third, we are dealing with the child’s original sin. It is the sin we inherited from Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). There is flaw within our soul which prevents us from being perfect. Baptisms remind us that we are sinners. Each one of us wrestles with our own original sin. Romans 3:23 says “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”  Never forget it. You are a sinner! Forgiveness is a complex topic.

We are different from God in many ways. One of the ways we are different from God is forgiveness. God forgives easily. We find it hard to forgive. It goes against our very nature. That is why we wrestle with Colossians 3:13, “Forgive as you are forgiven.”  We find it easy to accept forgiveness. We find it nearly impossible to forgive someone who has hurt us or a loved one. However, you must learn how to forgive, because you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You are supposed to be a little more like Jesus every day. Jesus forgave the woman. We must forgive others. You are supposed to be practicing today what you will be doing in heaven for eternity. Let me ask you a question with an obvious answer.

How does God treat sinners? This is the answer. God treats sinners, like you and me, with mercy and compassion. You must hear this. God does not condone or accept our sinning. God expects us to do better. That is what happened in the Bible story. When the scene ends, only two people remain, Jesus and the woman. The Master could have stoned her. He was sinless and she was a sinner. However, he looked at the woman and had compassion. When he looked at the woman, Jesus didn’t just see a rule breaker. When he looked at her, he saw an unhappy broken life, who was wasting her potential. Jesus cared more about her than he did about the law. God cares more about us, than the law. Which is more important to you, people or the law?

This story came out years after President Calvin Coolidge’s (1872-1933) death. In the early days of his presidency, Coolidge awoke one morning in his hotel room to find a cat burglar. Coolidge engaged the thief in quiet conversation and discovered he was a college student, who had no money. He couldn’t pay his hotel bill or buy a ticket back to campus. Coolidge asked, “How much do you need?” The young man replied, “$32.” Coolidge counted $32 out of his wallet and handed it to the young man. He said, “Consider it a loan.” Then he advised the young man to leave the way he came, so he wouldn’t be caught by the Secret Service. (Yes, the loan was paid back.)

I love that story, because Calvin Coolidge cared more about the young man than about the law. What is more important to you, the law or the person? Do you remember the quote from Bryant H. McGill? He once said, “There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.”  Go and sin no more!

We Believe in Jesus

Years ago, before a civil war threatened to divide America, before Columbus discovered the New World or before Rome conquered their world, there was a man who spoke on behalf of God. His name meant “The Lord Saves,” but we just call him Isaiah. He lived approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ. He lived in politically stormy times. The Assyrian Empire was expanding, and Israel was declining. Yet, in those dark days, Isaiah offered words of hope. In our reading for today, he unveils the full dimensions of God’s judgment and salvation. The focal point of God’s plan of salvation was the Messiah. The first four verses of our reading are key. They are the first of four of Isaiah’s songs.

What does that song tell us about this coming Messiah? There are three things. First, he will be chosen by God Himself. Second, the spirit of God will rest within him. Third, and finally, this hand-chosen, spirit-filled Messiah will bring justice. No wonder God’s Chosen People longed for this Messiah. That generation only had one problem. They were mortal, and they would never experience this coming Messiah. He wouldn’t be born for another 700 years. You know his story. He was born in a manger and was given the name Jesus. It is interesting to note that the name Isaiah means “The Lord Saves.” The name Jesus means “Savior.” Don’t tell me names don’t matter in the Bible. This is the question you must answer today:

Who is Jesus? There are a wide range of answers to that question. Some believe Jesus never existed – that He was just a fictitious person from history, who was the embodiment of goodness, like the American spirit is embodied in Uncle Sam. That is hard to believe, because Jesus’ teachings and life stories have significantly influenced world history. Many consider him the most influential life who has ever lived, directly and indirectly influencing billions of lives, even non-believers. Other world religions respect Jesus. In Islam, Jesus is considered Allah’s highest ranked and most-loved prophet. In the Bahai’ faith, Jesus is considered the manifestation of God. In Sikhism, Jesus is considered a holy man or a saint. Some in the Hebrew faith see Jesus in a different way. Respected mainstream Hebrew scholars say, apart from his own disciples and followers, Jesus had very little influence on their faith. He neither fulfilled the Messianic promises nor embodied the personal qualifications of the Messiah. How do you answer the question, who is Jesus? How does Christianity answer the question, who is Jesus?

In the Apostles’ Creed it says, “I believe in Jesus”. However, the creed is not satisfied with us just believing in Jesus. There is more detail, because the apostles understood the significance of Jesus. He was God’s only son and our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit. His mother was the virgin Mary, but that did not excuse him from hardship. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. In the end he was crucified, dead and buried. Once dead, he made a fast trip to hell. However, three days later, he was resurrected and, in time, ascended into heaven, where today he sits at the right hand of God. Someday, he will be our judge. That section of the Apostles’ Creed is heavy, so let me unpack it for you with three basic beliefs.

We believe Jesus was fully human. According to the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus’s biological mother was Mary. Philippians 2:6-7 says, speaking of Jesus, “Who being the very nature of God, did not consider himself equally with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  You remember her story. Through the eyes of the world, Mary was nothing. There was nothing exceptional about her. She is not remembered for her good looks. She is not remembered for her bright mind. She is not remembered for her vast wealth. She was just another teenage girl from a small town. She was nothing to the world, yet to God, she was exceptional. Of all the females who have ever lived, Mary was selected by God to be the mother of this long-awaited Messiah. No one debates the issue. Mary was Jesus’s mother and Jesus was Mary’s son. If DNA testing had been available then, the tests would have proved it. We believe Jesus was fully human, yet there is more.

We believe Jesus was fully God. According to the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus’s biological father was God. John 1:2 refers to Jesus by saying, “He was in the beginning with God.”  John 10:30 quotes Jesus himself. The Master said, “I and the father are one.” Those are not the only Bible verses that emphasize the divinity of Jesus. Countless Bible verses emphasize the divine truth, that Jesus was divine. According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she conceived. It is easy for the faithful to accept that divine truth. However, the scientific world has always had a problem with the virgin birth. For years, they have been trying to explain it away. Some believe, Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Some say, the word “virgin” does not mean sexually innocent. They say the word virgin means young girl. That means Joseph, or another man, was the biological father of Jesus. There is only one problem with that line of thought. It is simply wrong. I don’t know what the DNA test would have revealed, but Jesus was fully God. We believe Jesus was fully God. We believe Jesus’s biological mother was Mary, so Jesus is human. We believe Jesus’s biological father was God, so Jesus is divine. That combination made him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

We believe Jesus is our only hope of salvation. According to the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”  That verse summarizes why Jesus came. He came to save us. He did not come to be our role model. He came to be our savior. That is what makes Holy Week so special annually. It doesn’t just remind us of what Jesus did, it reminds us why he did it. You know what happened. We talk about it annually.

It all began at the Passover. On the lips of everyone was the name “Jesus”. He was not just known for his teachings, he was known for his healings. Nowadays, we would say Jesus was trending. So, when Jesus arrived, everyone wanted to see him because everyone wanted him to do something for them. They wanted to be impressed, so they must have been disappointed. Jesus came into town riding an unimpressive beast. It was the size of the crowd that disturbed those in religious authority. When the word came to them that Jesus cursed a fig tree, the very image of Israel, they must have been enraged. Jesus just wouldn’t go away. He stood outside the temple teaching about the Kingdom of God. It was then they knew something had to be done. A plan was conceived to eliminate Jesus. He was arrested after the Seder meal, in the garden. When they came to arrest him, he was doing nothing wrong; he was praying. Once arrested, Jesus endured two trials. The first was in front of the authority of his own people, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. They wanted to kill him, but they lacked the authority. For this reason, they sent Jesus to the ultimate authority in their world, Rome. The representative of Rome in their little corner of the world was a man named Pontius Pilate. When he gave the order to kill Jesus, the end was near. Jesus was executed, crucified, between two known criminals on a Friday. His death came relatively quick, and they laid him in a tomb. The people who loved Jesus must have been in denial the next day. How could something so right go so wrong, so fast? Unable to deal with his corpse on the Sabbath (Saturday), a few women showed up early Sunday morning. They are the ones who made the great discovery. The tomb couldn’t hold Jesus. Jesus had returned from the dead. I have never been able explain the resurrection, because I can’t explain a miracle. However, I do know this. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. The resurrection is our hope in the face of our impending death. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. In the life of the church, it is all about Jesus.

Do you remember this story? A pastor started at his new church. The first Sunday came and a big crowd was there to greet him. When the time came for the sermon, he preached a well thought out and powerfully delivered sermon about Jesus. Everyone was impressed. On his second Sunday, the crowd had thinned out, because the novelty was gone. The crowd was a little surprised when he preached the same exact sermon about Jesus. The congregation showed him some grace, because he was just getting settled into the community. However, on the third week, their patience grew a little thin when he again preached the same exact sermon about Jesus. When they heard the same sermon for the fourth time, they were upset. The leaders of the church decided to have a meeting and confront the new pastor. They were tired of hearing the same sermon about Jesus. They wanted to hear something new. They met behind closed doors. The leader of the congregation was firm and clear. He looked at the new pastor and asked, “Don’t you have any other sermons? We are tired of hearing your sermon about Jesus. There are so many other topics. There are so many problems in the world. There are so many problems within this church. Yet, all you do is talk about Jesus. Doesn’t anything else matter, but Jesus? And the pastor answered, “No!” The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus.

Josh McDowell (born 1939) is an Evangelical Protestant Christian author. He once said, “I am not a Christian because God changed my life; I am a Christian because of my convictions about who Jesus Christ is.”  Who is Jesus to you?