Pastor Sherry’s Message for May 2, 2021
Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40, 1 Jn 4:7-21; Jn 15:1-8
The other day I bumped into an old friend, a pastor I have known for years. We chatted about our families and our churches. Then we got to laughing about our surprising career paths. He has been called out after 4+ years of retirement to serve his former church again (as they search for another pastor); while I, an Anglican, am pastoring a Methodist Church. He commented that it seems a happy fit—since I’m in my 6th year here at WUMC. I bragged on you, telling him that you love Jesus, love Scripture, and love each other (& me, I hope).
Thinking over the unusual turns my life has taken, he said, “Sherry, you have always been an anomaly.” Now I could have been insulted as an anomaly can be defined as a defect. But since he’s a big tease, I knew he was probably thinking more along the lines of “being different,” “unique,” “unexpected,” or “outside the norm.” My Anglican Bishop has said he thinks I have “the spirit of Deborah,” the only female judge or national leader in the book of Judges. She was certainly unique and so clearly outside the norm.
Though I have chuckled over my friend’s assessment, it has since struck me that following Jesus makes us each an anomaly.
Think about it: If we love Jesus, we live out values different than the mainstream; we behave in such a way that we almost no longer fit in with present day American culture. I have another friend who often says our Christian values so set us apart that we are like cultural dinosaurs (Though neither extinct nor obsolete). Knowing y’all, I don’t think you would disagree.
Our Scriptures today share some ways we are gonna be countercultural–we are gonna be anomalies–if we love Jesus:
Acts 8:26-40 In this passage, Dr. Luke describes deacon Philip’s encounter with a fellow returning from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The context of this encounter is the persecution against Christians—followers of “The Way” as it was first called–that had broken out in Jerusalem, beginning with the stoning of Stephen, another deacon. One would think, “This is terrible! What a tragedy!” But remember that Jesus had told them they were to take the Gospel beyond Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Instead, they had remained in a “holy huddle,” hunkered down with like-believers. God uses the persecution to scatter or push the disciples out into other Jewish then non-Jewish areas.
Philip (not the Apostle, but a guy in the 2nd tier, a deacon) goes first to Samaria. In verses 5-8, before this passage, we are told that he preached the Word, healed the sick, and cast out demons! He’s not God but–empowered by the Holy Spirit–he is doing the work Jesus did. And he was doing it very well! Secular wisdom would say, “He’s a success. Keep him there, growing the church bigger and bigger!” But God, thru the Holy Spirit, sends him off in another direction.
The Holy Spirit sends Philip on a divine appointment. Have you ever had one of those? You are frustrated when your car breaks down, but then have an opportunity to talk to the tow truck driver, or the mechanic, about the Lord. You are about to leave the house when a distressed friend calls in a dither. You speak to them, calm them down, and pray for them. In these and similar events, you realize after that those were not coincidences. No, they were nudges to kindness and service, divine appointments, ordained by God.
Philip was serving in Samaria, to the north, but was then sent to the Gaza Road, way to the South. The Holy Spiritdirects him to the Ethiopian governmental official. The guy was a North African believer in the God of the Jews. Notice: He has already encountered the Word of God. As he is chauffeured along in his chariot (perhaps the equivalent of a stretch limo) he is reading Isaiah 53, the last of the 4 Suffering Servant Songs—all of which predict Jesus. However, he is understandably confused. Is the prophet Isaiah talking about himself or of someone else? He already has a hunger to know more about God. Running alongside the chariot, Philip offers to help him. Notice: the Holy Spirit has prompted the Ethiopian official to be curious about Scripture. Notice again: God has prompted Philip to be right there to explain. This is truly an appointment that God has arranged.
Philip does such a good job of explaining the Gospel—Jesus lived, died for our sins, and came back to life, all so that all of us who believe in Jesus could become close to the Father—that the guy wants to become a Christ-follower. He asks to be baptized, and Philip obliges him (and the Lord).
Interestingly, instead of continuing on toward Ethiopia, Philip is then whisked away to a Philistine city, Ashdod, to further evangelize. We have absolutely no idea how many Samaritans or Philistines came to Christ through the ministry of Philip. Early Church history does tell us, though, that the first big church was built in North Africa! That Ethiopian went home and told many others about Jesus. Even today, 2100 years later, 62.8% of Ethiopians are Christians (while 34.6% are Muslims).
1 John 4:7-21 John, the Apostle of love, sets out several counter-cultural realities about AGAPEO love (not philios [brotherly or sisterly] or [sexual] eros). In verse 7 he affirms that love comes from God, because God is love. In other words, love is not our initiative. Human beings did not invent it. In verse 12 he states that whenever we demonstrate love, we are imitating God. In verse 14 he reminds us that God demonstrated His love for us by sending Jesus to redeem us. Furthermore, in verses 16-17 he assures us thatone of the ways we see/experience/and cooperate with God is by taking loving action. Aren’t we touched when we see a TV ad as touching as the old Budweiser ones? Remember the one featuring the Clydesdale pony who, as a grown up horse, leaves the parade to find and to nuzzle his former trainer?) How about those rare TV news stories in which someone has done something generous or unexpectedly kind for someone else? Those are examples of love in action.
Now James, Jesus’ brother, states in his epistle (1:17) Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. In other words, if you are moved to do something generous or kind, it is because the Holy Spirit has inspired you to do so. And this is counter-cultural. Without God in our lives prompting us to love, Isa 64:6 …all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags. If youwatch the news, it’s hard to see any love in action. I think ofSilicon Valley CEO’s and Wall Street magnates who behave unscrupulously then donate a huge amount of cash to some charitable enterprise. Their actions look loving, but unless Jesus is at the center of their giving, according to Isaiah their gifts are like “dirty diapers” (the literal translation of filthy rags). Loving actions are anomalies our God wants us to demonstrate all the time.
Finally, in verse 18, the Apostle writes, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. Knowing that God loves us can keep us from caving into fear. God’s perfect love for us casts out our fear. As a survivor of repeated childhood trauma, I grew up always afraid of the dark. This changed for me when I developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
I still pray for Him to keep me safe at night. He hasn’t ever let me down. I’m no longer afraid at night.
Now, if we live on a daily diet of the news, we can become fearful of many things–Everything from nuclear holocaust to being mugged, to dying from the Covid. But if we can focus on God’s love for us, we can enjoy freedom from these kinds of anxieties. The peace that passes all understanding is clearly countercultural—and if we abide in it, we will be perceived as anomalies.
In John 15:1-8 Jesus asserts that, I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. Last Sunday, in a terrific sermon, Ken told you about Jesus’ 7 I am statements in John’s Gospel. Any believing Jew of that day would have known that God the Father referred to Himself as I am (or The Great I AM). So any Jew paying attention to Jesus’ 7 I am sayings would understand that He was equating Himself with God. Since many of them did not believe He was God, they charged Him with and executed Him for blasphemy. We know He was speaking the truth because He is God.
Not only this, but He is referring to Himself as the true or genuine Israel. All throughout the Old Testament, the vineyard or grape vines are a metaphor for the Israelite nation. If Jesus is the authentic, genuine Israelite, it is because He has loved His Father, been obedient to His Father, and loved and served His people. They have not done likewise, though that is what God wanted from them.
Additionally, He is saying that we can do nothing of any significance apart from Him. This is so congruent with the concept from Isaiah 64:6.
Our culture would have us believe that “Might makes right”; or “The one with the most money, most expensive toys, or the most political power wins. But we anomalies know that none of that stuff will get us to Heaven! We can take no U-Hauls with us into the afterlife, right? In this life, money, power, fame, even health can all be lost. But a vital relationship with Jesus will see us through this life and safely into the next.
If loving Jesus makes us anomalies, well so be it! I don’t know about you, but I would rather love Jesus and live outside the current norms than be a cultural conformist without Him. Remember those critters called lemmings? When they overpopulate, they run themselves off cliffs into the sea to drown. I wonder if any unique, non-normative lemmings stand off to the side and say to themselves, “What are you all doing? That way leads to death! Not me, Buddy!”
This week, try to be aware of when God shifts your direction; when He provides you with a divine appointment. Let’s try also to be countercultural people who daily demonstrate God’s love in word and in deed.
©2021 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams