Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sermon Acts 1:6-14 “Devoted to Prayer”

Jeffrey T. Howard
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Sermon Acts 1:6-14 “Devoted to Prayer”
May 24, 2020

Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection he took his disciples to the Mount of Olives and ascended to heaven.   The number forty in the Bible usually refers to the time of preparation.  Moses prepared himself to meet God and receive the Ten Commandments with forty days of fasting.   The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness preparing to enter the Holy Land.   And Jesus prepared for his ministry with forty days in the wilderness.   So for forty days Jesus was preparing his disciples for their ministry.

What is the ministry that the disciples were prepared for?   It was to take all they witnessed into the world.  But before they could do that they had to wait in Jerusalem and receive power from the Holy Spirit.   For ten days after Jesus’ ascension they waited.   What do you think they did for 10 days while waiting for empowerment?   They prayed.   We will get to this, but first let us pray.

Eternal Father, we come to you today as your disciples.   We are waiting for the empowerment of your Spirit so that we may take our knowledge of your resurrection into the world.   While we are waiting, please receive our prayers.   In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.

Acts 1:4 While staying with them, he (Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 

8 But 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.” 

9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

They devoted themselves to constant prayer.  Jesus’ remaining disciples, some women, and his own family gathered back into the upper room to wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the new empowerment that Jesus promised.  They went there to wait and to pray.  

    Prayer was important to the leaders of the new church.  They regularly went to the temple every afternoon for three-o-clock prayers.  As the demands of the church demanded more and more of their time, deacons were ordained for pastoral care so that the leaders could continue devoting themselves to prayer.   And new elders were ordained with much prayer and fasting.

    Grace and I pray every day.   We use the Daily Prayer App from the PCUSA.  Each day we read to each other the scripture readings from the Daily Lectionary.   We pray for our families and our churches.   I pray for each person in the church by name using your portrait directory as a guide.   And twice a week I send out, via email, a service of Daily Prayer and the scripture from the Daily Lectionary so that you may join us in prayer from the comfort of your home. 

Since women and men first walked on the earth prayer has been a part of our lives.  Our earliest ancestors sensed a mysterious power at work in the world.  The nature of this power was dimly understood.  But when famine or disease threatened to destroy their tribes they reached out to this power in prayer pleading for salvation.  

    Today all people sense this mysterious power beyond themselves.  We reach out to it with our most intense needs and desires.  When in trouble our natural response is prayer.  Yet we live in an age when results matter.  So when we pray we expect God to answer.  And if God fails to answer or if the answer is “no” then we are profoundly disappointed. 

Many people believe that praying is a way to get God to do something for them.  Prayer somehow changes God.  But as Christians we believe that prayer changes us.  When we pray our hearts are changed.  Prayer increases our self-understanding and molds us around God’s will. For Christians prayer is never centered on getting something rather it is always centered on God.  Our goal in prayer is to have a relationship with God.  This leads us to the first reason for prayer that our hearts may be filled with a “burning desire to seek, love, and serve God.”  

Too often we put off praying because we are too busy or too tired.  But these are just excuses.  Since prayer is our way of conforming ourselves to God’s will, the failure to pray is really a form of resistance to God.   When we cannot find time to pray we should realize that this is a sign of an inner conflict with God.  The temptation to not pray must be resisted.  Then as we pray we will experience a renewal of the sense of God’s presence in our lives.

As we pray we should make all of our needs and wants, all of our thoughts and feelings, known to God.   This forces us to examine our thoughts and desires carefully.  If you do not want to bring a thought or desire to God you should reconsider the appropriateness of that thought or desire.  Our thoughts and desires may change radically in prayer.  This leads us to the second reason for prayer “that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we would be ashamed to make God a witness.”  

Prayer is closely tied to self-examination.  This is why the Puritans who settled in American made self-examination a daily practice of confession.  It forces us to take a new look at ourselves and consider what we are doing with our lives.  Prayer changes us even if the change is undesired and unexpected.  

When we think about our lives we often focus on the negative.  We see what is wrong with ourselves and others.  But in prayer we take a second look and notice all of the blessings that God has given us.   This causes us to respond to God with thanksgiving.  Our consciousness is freed from the negative.  We are able to be thankful for the goodness of life even in the midst of our troubles.  This leads us to the third reason for prayer, “that we be prepared to receive God’s benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving.”  

Prayers of thanksgiving are an important feature of Black churches.  Frequently people in those congregations respond with exclamations like “Thank you Jesus” and “Yes, Lord”.  Their prayers are filled with praises of God.  Gratitude fills their hearts helping them deal with oppression and discrimination that has lasted for generations.  With prayers of thanksgiving we never take God’s blessings for granted.  We recognize that God is the source of everything we have, and we recognize God’s blessings every day.

In prayer we perceive all that God is doing for us.  As we respond in gratitude our hearts change.  Then we realize how much God truly loves us, hears our cries, and desires our well-being.    We begin to see answers from God for what we thought was unanswered prayer.  We respect God’s “no” when we realize that it has been given out of love.  And we develop the patience to wait for God’s answer in God’s own time.  This leads us to the fourth reason for prayer that, “being convinced that God has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.”  

We all know that we should pray, but praying is hard to do.  Everything around us tells us that prayer is unimportant.  We ask, “How can God make a difference in a world that obeys natural laws?”  We ask these questions because we forget who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives all that we have done wrong.  Even if we think that prayer may be useless it still affects who we are because in prayer we realize that we are God’s beloved.  We are reminded of God’s grace.  And we rekindle our sense of the mysterious and otherness of God.

Prayer brings us into a relationship where we can trust God, the creator of the universe.  We also understand in prayer that Christ has joined us in our weakness.  By praying in Jesus’ name we are reminded that he stoops down to lift us up to the presence of God.  This act teaches us that we are dependent on God, and frees us from the necessity of depending only on ourselves.  We set aside our busyness and our workaholic ways to do nothing, to set ourselves quietly before God’s throne.  

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, they already knew what prayer was.  They had seen numerous examples in the Torah and in the Psalms.  They already understood that God meets our daily needs, forgives us, and will initiate a new kingdom.  What Jesus taught them was that they could approach God calling him “Our Father”.  
    So what have we learned today about prayer?  First of all, prayer creates within us a “burning desire to seek, love, and serve God.”  Second, we learned “that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we would be ashamed to make God a witness.” Third, “that we be prepared to receive God’s benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving.”  And fourth, “being convinced that God has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.” 

        In times past American political leaders have led us in prayer during crises.   On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush went to the National Cathedral in Washington DC and said this, “We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation's sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them.”  In this time of the coronavirus our leaders have not led us to pray.   Rather they tell us to stay at home and not go to church.   Social distancing has replaced prayer as our national response to crises.    I think we have lost an important part of what it means to be an American. 

I urge you to pray every day.  Select a time for daily prayer and honor God by always keeping that appointment.   Read some scripture.  Ask God any questions that you might have.   Offer up your feelings and thoughts.   And ask God for whatever you need.   Bask in God’s presence and receive his kindness.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, bless us with a burning desire to serve you in this world.  Purge from us all thoughts that dishonor you.  We thank you for all the ways you have blessed us.  Fill our minds with thoughts of your infinite kindness.  This we pray in you Son’s name in the power of your Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sermon 1 Peter 3:10-22 New Life in Baptism

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon 1 Peter 3:10-22 New Life in Baptism
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2020

Today I will be concluding my series of sermons on the topic of new life as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  We have been looking at the Book of First Peter to see how we deal with the world around us in our new lives in Christ.  These lives are often difficult because we are changed by Christ into new creations, but we can rejoice in the midst of these difficulties because of all that Christ has done for us.  As Christ transforms us into new people, we find that we are able to love one another more fully.  Our new lives are not immune to pain and suffering, but through Christ, we experience the faith, hope, and love of God.  As new people, we are formed into new faith communities called the church.  And today we will see the victory of Christ over sin, as we are initiated into the fellowship of the church through the Sacrament of Baptism. We will get to all of this, but first, will you pray with me?  

Holy Spirit, come upon us and baptize us with faith, hope, and love.  Destroy the sin that clings so deeply to us.  Transform us into the image of God as we were created.  And bless us as God’s own people.  We pray this in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

1 Peter 3:10-22   10 For "Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit;  11 let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.  12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated,  15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. 

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.  17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.  

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of  Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 

21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

I was born here in New Jersey.  My parents lived in Collingswood and attended the Haddonfield Presbyterian Church.  Shortly after I was born, they presented me to the church for the Sacrament of Baptism.   At that time, the Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland was the pastor of that church.  He baptized me.   And for my entire life, I have heard from Dad about the great sermons that Dr. Kirkland preached.  Dad told me that if I was ever in New York City on a Sunday, I should stop into Fifth Avenue Presbyterian church to hear Dr. Kirkland where he served as Senior Pastor for twenty-five years.

Several decades later, I was driving past the National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC.   Their sign out front read, “Rev. Dr. Bryant M. Kirkland, Interim Pastor”.   Could this be the same preacher?   I had to find out.  So the next Sunday I was in worship at National Presbyterian Church.   After worship, I talked briefly with Dr. Kirkland.  He was the pastor who baptized me.  And I stayed at National Presbyterian Church for the next decade, until my ordination as a pastor.

Our new lives in Christ are sealed upon us in baptism.  We participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.  As we pass under the waters of baptism we die to the sin that separates us from God.  And then we are raised to new life in Christ, who died for us and was raised from the dead.  Baptism, therefore, points us forward to a glorious future where in our new lives we can fulfill God’s purposes.

The church baptizes disciples because we were commanded to do so by Christ himself who told us to go into the world and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

Just as Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit in his baptism so too are we.  The anointing empowers us to do what Jesus commands us to do in a life of service to others and by forming inclusive worship where people from all the nations, who have come here to our community, can gather together in the presence of God where love, justice, and mercy abound.  

In baptism, the church is bound in a covenant relationship with God, our creator.  Symbolically we participate in the waters of God’s good creation, we are saved from the waters of Noah’s flood, and we pass through the parted waters of the Red Sea with Moses.  As the water of baptism flows down over our heads we are reminded of the prophecies of old who saw a day when justice would roll down like the waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream.  In baptism, we experience a new covenant of God’s grace and goodness.  In it Jesus is offered as the living water that leads us to eternal life.

The ancient Hebrews used circumcision as a sign of inclusion in God’s family.  So too is baptism a symbol of our inclusion in God’s covenant.  The waters of baptism are a sign of the faithfulness of God, the washing away of our sin, our rebirth into new life, and adoption into God's family.  We become members of the body of Christ unifying us with believers in every time and place.  We become one church where all barriers of race, gender, status, and age are transcended.  Divisions of nationality, history, and practice are overcome.

In baptism, we are sealed with the promises of scripture.  We receive God’s grace and God’s summons to respond.  We are called to repentance, faithfulness, and discipleship.  Baptism gives the church its identity, purpose, and mission to the world.  Baptism is a sign and seal of what God has already done.  It is effective even when we are not faithful because God is always faithful.  Baptism is the start of our new lives where God’s grace begins its work.  

For this reason, we baptize both believers and their children.  Just as God saved both Noah and his family from the flood so too are the children of believers saved from eternal death by our faithful God. The baptism of infants, like circumcision before it, is a sign of the covenant that God has already made with both the parents and the child and is a mark of their inclusion in the family of God.  It is a witness to the truth that God loves us before we can even respond.

Every time we see a baptism we are reminded that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was for us because just as water washes away dirt from the body so too does Christ’s blood wash away our sins.  Though this washing away of our sins by the blood of Christ we receive forgiveness from God through grace, and we are renewed by the Holy Spirit and set aside for God’s purposes as the church.

Just as we worship one God there is one baptism.  Baptism only needs to be done once because of God’s grace, faithfulness, and love never need to be renewed.  In baptism, God’s covenant is permanently sealed upon us.  Therefore there is never a need for a second baptism.  In our church, we accept all baptisms done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Christ commanded us.  

Our church, as a part of the Church universal, has a responsibility to nurture those baptized into the Christian life.  That is why the session of this church must provide for Christian education for people of all ages.   When infants are baptized the church has a special responsibility to assist the parents in raising their children in Christian life.  Both the parents of the child and the church must promise to nurture and guide the child until he is ready to profess his own faith and assume responsibility of church membership.

When someone desires the Sacrament of Baptism for themselves or their children he must first profess his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, renounce evil, rely on God’s grace, and declare a desire to participate in the worship and mission of the church. A parent must declare his intent to provide for the Christian nurture of the child.    The congregation must profess that it will support and take responsibility for the nurture of those baptized.  And the pastor must thank God for God’s faithfulness, praise God for acts of reconciliation, and ask that the Holy Spirit attend and empower the baptism making the water a sign and seal of redemption and rebirth.

We must always remember that the author of baptism is God alone, not us.  We do not create sacraments only God does.  Baptism is a symbol that God has given us.  We find the meaning of this symbol in the pages of scripture.  In the Word of God, we find the faith which unlocks the meaning of the symbol.    As the church baptizes new disciples God works through the church so that, through the proper administration of the sacrament, members of the church will find God.  

God always acts through the sacraments even if the pastor does not administer them properly.  The true baptizer is not the minister but Jesus Christ himself.  And Jesus is the rock from which the holy water of baptism flows.

So if you have already been baptized I urge you to remember your baptism.  If you can’t remember yours then I urge you to remember baptisms you have seen.  Most of all remember what God has done for you in washing away your sin and bringing you to new life in Christ.  

If you have not been baptized, I can tell you that God loves you and if you turn toward him, God will wash away your sins.  You are invited by God to respond in obedience.  Pass through the baptismal waters as a sign and seal of your new life in Jesus Christ and be nurtured in a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, help us to go into our community to proclaim the good news that you have forgiven us and welcome us home as your people.  Place in the hearts of the people we talk to a desire to come to church for this good news to be sealed upon them in baptism and to be nurtured as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Amen.  

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon 1 Peter 2:2-10 “Building a Living Church”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon 1 Peter 2:2-10 “Building a Living Church”
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2020

Watch the entire Zoom Worship Service

Read the Order of Worship

Today I will be continuing my sermon series from the book of First Peter as we look at the implications of our new lives that result from the resurrection of Christ from the dead.  We have already seen that even though we may find our new lives difficult we can rejoice because of all God has given us.  We have become new people who genuinely love one another.  And even in the midst of our suffering and sorrow, we are comforted by the faith, hope, and love of God.  Today we will see how God uses us in our new lives to form a spiritual community here on Earth called the church.  We will get to all of this, but first, let’s pray.

Father in heaven, help us today to drink the spiritual milk of your Holy Word.  Build us into a spiritual temple where we can offer to you our praises and prayers.  And by your grace adopt us as your people.  We pray this in the name of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith.  Amen.

1 Peter 2:2-10  2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation--  3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.  4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and  5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  6 For it stands in scripture: "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."  7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,"  8 and "A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.  9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

When I was young my favorite toy was a bunch of plain wooden blocks.  They came in several sizes and you could stack them in many different ways.  They came from my grandmother and I think my father may have played with them too.  They were unpainted and could be stacked together to form many different things.  I don’t know where they are now, but I still think about them because this is the way God thinks about the church.  God sacks one block upon another until his creation of the church is finished.  We are blocks and the church universal is the spiritual temple that God is building.

As Christians, we are nurtured by the Word of God.  Scripture is what gives us life and hope.  Reading and meditating on the Bible transforms us into holy people. We get a taste of Jesus and want more, much more.  Many Americans conclude that since reading the Bible brings them closer to God and since reading the Bible can be done alone there is no need for corporate worship.  They attempt to develop their own spirituality without going to church.  So we see church membership declining at the same time we see sales of Christian books and Bibles increasing.  People are trying to find God in solitary reading rather than communities of faith.

But the Apostle Peter tells us that God has a different idea.  God wants to use the people to whom he has given new life to build a spiritual temple built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Peter is not talking about a church building of brick and cement.  Rather he sees that God is building a spiritual temple of all the believers in the world with Jesus Christ at the head, the cornerstone.  As people with new lives, we are part of this new temple because we are the building blocks that God has used to make it.  We are living stones.  Each of us is a part of God’s overall creation of the church of Jesus Christ.

In this spiritual temple, we are the priests who offer up to God sacrifices of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving.  This is what we call “worship”.  We find Jesus in the Word of God and respond with prayers of joy and praise.  Since it is impractical for all believers in the world to praise God in the same place and at the same time, we form individual churches in neighborhoods like Daretown, where we join together as living stones into the spiritual temple.  We taste Jesus in scripture and sing the praises of God in worship.

Being a part of this spiritual temple is a benefit of our new life which comes to us through our belief in Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  Christ is the foundation of the temple.  The whole weight of the building rests on him.  Those who believe in Christ are built by God upon this foundation into a spiritual temple.  The strength of the walls of the temple is determined by our faith.  Therefore it is only through our faith in Jesus Christ that we are given new lives and formed by God into a spiritual temple called the church universal.

But what about all the people who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and thus reject Christ as their living Lord and Savior?  Are they part of this spiritual temple?  Peter says no.  Anyone who does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not receive new life and will not be part of the spiritual temple erected by God.  Jesus Christ is the foundation of the temple, but he is also the stone of judgment.  Believers are living stones built upon this foundation, but the nonbelievers, who reject Christ, find this solid foundation a stumbling block.  A belief in Jesus Christ is required for new life and participation in the spiritual temple of God.

This belief, in the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for a new life, creates problems for us in our culture.  In America today, we live in a pluralistic land where people have the freedom to worship as they choose.  We have the right to reject the message of Christ, worship in our own way, and believe whatever we choose to believe. Our culture values tolerance and peaceful coexistence.  Christians are often accused of being intolerant because of our belief that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.  But we are not being intolerant of others.  Rather we believe that Christ is the only way because of the historical fact of his resurrection from the dead.  We, therefore, know that what the Bible claims is true and that it provides us with the spiritual milk which brings us closer to God.

As attendance in the mainline church declines, there has been a move to water down our message.  Our music and sermons are often designed not to offend anyone.  We don’t want anyone to complain.  Sermons are filled with lots of stories about daily life but say little about the requirements of the gospel to believe and live a holy life.  We form seeker services that are long on entertainment and short on the requirements of following Jesus.  We don’t want to seem judgmental or intolerant so we design worship services that will please as many people as we can.  Our goal is for everyone to have a good time in church.

But after a generation or two of watering down the gospel, I believe that there is now a real thirst in America for genuine, authentic spirituality.  People hunger for nutritious spiritual food that will satisfy their desire to reach God.  People long for a word from God they can believe.  They desire to be part of a larger plan and to be used for something bigger than themselves.  They have a desire for authentic worship of their creator.  This is the great opportunity for the church today: to proclaim the really good news of new life as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to watch as God builds those with new lives into a spiritual temple filled with praise and worship.

God has chosen us, believers, to be his priests, set aside for his purposes, in this spiritual temple.  This is a high honor for us because it allows us to both worship and serve God.  We are permitted to offer to God a sacrifice of our own lives by denying ourselves and following Jesus Christ as our Lord.  We do this with prayers, thanksgiving, tithes, and service to the church.  God uses our service as holy priests to build us into the church not because of our own efforts, but because of what Christ did for us on the cross.  We are called to give glory to God.

So if you are not a believer in Jesus Christ then you are still in darkness.  You are not yet receiving the benefits of a new life in Christ.  You are not yet formed into a spiritual temple.  So I urge you to taste, just taste, a little of the spiritual nourishment that is provided to you as you read the Bible.  This will bring you to belief in Jesus Christ your Lord and will enable God to give you new life.  Then you will be formed into a spiritual temple with Christ at the foundation where you will be ordained as holy priests to offer up to God yourselves in worship and receive, by God’s grace, his glory and honor.  Make that decision today to read the Bible daily and come to church every Sunday, so you will come to believe in Jesus Christ and be built into the wonderful spiritual temple that God is creating.  Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, we come to you as believers in your son.  We have tasted the spiritual milk that you have provided us in your Holy Word and found that it is good.  Transform us into new lives and build us into a spiritual temple where we can worship and glorify you in our prayers and praises.  We pray all of this in the glorious name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Sermon 1 Peter 2:18-25 “Living the New Life”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon 1 Peter 2:18-25 “Living the New Life”
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2020

Prelude - Give Thanks - Margaret Powers and Nick Mercado

Order of Worship

Anthem - Just a Closer Walk - Nick Mercado, solo, Margaret Powers, piano

Watch a video of this sermon.

Today I will be preaching my third in a series of sermons on our new lives in Christ as told to us by the Apostle Peter.  Two weeks ago we saw that we can rejoice even though our new lives can make things difficult for us because of the gifts we receive from Christ.  Last week we looked at how, in this new life, Christ transforms us into people who genuinely love one another.  Today we will look at how in our new lives we are comforted in times of suffering and sorrow by the faith, hope, and love of God.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.

Father in heaven, I ask for blessings to pour down upon this church.  Send your faith, hope, and love to us as we endure these times of suffering and sorrow.  Send your Spirit to comfort us. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

1 Peter 2:18-25  18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.  19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.  20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval.  21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  22 "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."  23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your soul.

You walk past a beautiful mahogany table that you purchased when you first got married.  You remember your kids as they grew up around this table.  But you just got back from the hospital after visiting your wife.  While at the hospital your daughter told you that it is time for both of you to move to a retirement home to receive assistance in living.   You wonder what will happen to this table when you leave your home.

You answer the phone and it is your son.  His cancer has returned.  There are new symptoms and the doctors are not sure what to do.  All you can think of doing at a time like this is to sit down and pray to God who has sustained you in the past.

You are sitting in your favorite chair in the home where you have lived for over sixty years.  You are watching a blank television because someone has misplaced the remote control and you have no idea where it is.  You look around the room and everything looks unfamiliar.  You become frightened that you have been taken somewhere.  So you pick up the phone and call the only number you remember and tell the church’s answering machine that you need help because you don’t know where you are.

You eat dinner with a sense of dread.  You hope that you can keep the food down.  Sometimes you can.  But you know that usually, an hour or so after dinner, you will run to the bathroom in incredible pain.  The doctors don’t know what is going on.  Thankfully you have a church that will pray for you.

You have been homeless for years.  You and your wife have been living in a tent behind a church for a long time.  Your wife is sick and was taken to the hospital.  You need to know how she is doing.  But when you call from a payphone they will not accept collect charges.  You are desperate to know how she is doing.

Rarely does a day pass by when I do not pray for someone who is suffering.  I keep a list of prayers for the church and pray your prayers every morning. I pray for healing for those who are sick.  I pray for discernment for those facing difficult decisions.  I pray for relief for those who suffer.  Sometimes I pray and the person I pray for gets better.  But often I pray for someone and watch that person get worse.  Prayer is not magic.  There are no guarantees, only hope.  This hope comes from our faith in Jesus Christ, who does heal the sick and relieves suffering, but sometimes Jesus works in surprising ways.

The Rev. Craig Barnes tells a story about a woman with crippling arthritis.  He met her at a prayer service where she walked down the aisle to ask for prayers of healing.  Rev Barnes prayed for her.  A few months later she returned with a cane and knelt down as he prayed for healing again.  The following year she returned in a wheelchair and the pastor and elder knelt down to pray for her. When they finished praying they saw a giant smile on her face.  She said “He is merciful, Pastor.  Thank God he has healed my heart which was so crippled with anger. At long last, I am a free woman.”  The pastor learned that day an important lesson: healing is not just about the body, it is about the heart as well.  It wasn’t until this woman’s body stopped working that her heart was healed and started to work.

The Apostle Peter knew that people in his churches were suffering.  The wild enthusiasm that had accompanied the resurrection was beginning to wear off.  Now there were ordinary people leading ordinary lives that included suffering disease, and death.  And they were asking what new life means in their situations.  And this is the same question we ask.  Peter said that we are blessed whenever we suffer because we know that God is here with us.  God is the good shepherd who finds us when we are lost and binds up our wounds.  And God knows when our suffering is undeserved and we are still able to maintain our faith.   God loves you in your suffering just as he loved his own son in his suffering on the cross.  Our calling is to follow Jesus even to our own suffering on our cross.  God knows this and loves us in our suffering.

When we suffer we can rest in the comfort of God.  We know that our suffering has nothing to do with anything we have done in our lives.  Jesus already took the punishment for our sins on his own body on the cross.  So for us, suffering is not a punishment for sin.  Rather suffering is an opportunity for us to experience God in a new and exciting way.  In suffering, we develop faith by our experience of God’s love for us and develop hope in a glorious future with new life.  All of this comes to us by the grace of God.

When we experience suffering our faith grows.  By faith, I don’t mean just belief in the existence of God.  Rather I am talking about faith in a particular kind of God.  We discover that we have a God who meets us in our pain.  Even in the midst of our pain and sense of loss, we are aware of the presence of God.  God’s Spirit has come to comfort us.  This helps us to form not just an intellectual faith in a transcendent God but an emotional faith in an immanent God.  We find in our experience of God a God who loves us dearly and fills us with great hope

We find that this hope is far more than just wishful thinking.  Wishful thinking is all that those, outside of Christ, have.  But we experience that our hope is in something real and tangible.  Our hope rests in God’s faithfulness to his promises.  We begin to look at suffering not as a time of imprisonment but as a time of preparation for something new.  We start to trust God who leads us into an uncertain future.  In suffering, we have a personal experience of the reality of God and God’s steadfast faithfulness. And most of all we experience an overflowing of God’s love.

The love we experience in times of suffering comes from God.  This passes from God through faithful believers to us.  We experience God’s love through the love of the people around us.  Suffering gives other people opportunities to show compassion and grace in many different ways.  We experience God’s love through the love of our friends and family who comfort us during our times of need.  When we need God’s love the most God makes that love available to us through the incarnational love of those with new life.  And God’s incarnational love is expressed through communities of faith, churches when it is needed most.

In suffering, we experience our own pain, grief, and loss, but we also experience God’s faithfulness, hope, and love.  God too has experienced all of these emotions when his son Jesus Christ died on the cross.  Jesus experienced the pain of dying.  But he also experienced the great faithfulness, hope, and love of his Father.

In a few moments, we will be praying for each other.  This is the most important thing that we do as a church.  As we pray for each other let pray for healing.  Let us also expand our prayers to include a request that God sends faith, hope, and love.  And let us be a people of genuine mutual love as we care for those in our congregation who are in need.

Father in heaven I pray for healing for the people in this congregation and for the healing of their friends and family who are suffering.  Comfort them with your presence.  Fill them with your faithfulness, hope, and love.  Transform us into your people who can bring your love to those who are in need.  We pray this in the name of Jesus who suffered on a cross for us. Amen.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Sermon 1 Peter 1:10-25 “Living Holy Lives”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon  1 Peter 1:10-25  “Living Holy Lives”
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020

Order of Worship for the Third Sunday of Easter

Zoom Bible Study - Tuesdays at 7 pm

Pittsgrove Choir - "I Have a Song" Jan. 27, 2019

Mission Sunday - Cornerstore Women's Resource Center

Watch a video this sermon.

This is the second in a series of sermons focused on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Last week we saw that as a result of the resurrection we now have a new life.   Even if we still experience problems, we can rejoice because of all that Christ has done for us.   We have hope for a glorious future.  Today we will be looking at how we get this new life and how that new life changes us in important ways.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.

Holy Father, we ask that you allow us to be in your presence this morning as we worship.  Help us to hear your word through my preaching today.  Transform us by that word into holy people who truly love one another.  We pray this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Peter 1:10-25  10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry,  11 inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory.  12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven-- things into which angels long to look!

13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.  14 Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  15 Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;  16 for it is written, "You shall
be holy, for I am holy."

17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.  18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold,  19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.  20 He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.  21 Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

 22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  24 For "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls,  25 but the word of the Lord endures forever." That word is the good news that was announced to you.

A prophet is someone who sees clearly what is happening in the world and discerns what God thinks about it.  They are not future tellers or psychics although what they say does have an element of timeless truth.  Rather they are truth-tellers who understand what is going on in the world around them.   They are connected to God’s Spirit through prayer to discern what God wants to be done in the world.

Moses saw the oppression of the Israelites and he discerned God’s desire for their freedom.  Amos saw the injustice to the poor and needy in his society and he discerned God’s warning that the destruction of the nation was near if they did not repent and change their ways.  Prophets are needed whenever the world we live in diverges from the Creator’s intent.  God sends prophets to bring us back to obedience.

The Apostles of Jesus Christ, who witnessed his resurrection, were prophets.  They clearly saw what was happening in the world around them and they knew what God wanted through the Holy Spirit.  As prophets, they spoke in synagogues, homes, and later churches proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

As the church grew, Apostles trained other preachers teaching them the message that God wanted to be proclaimed about the grace of Jesus Christ.  So long as these new preachers proclaimed a message consistent with the teaching of the Apostles their words were considered to be the word of God.  This was made possible by the Holy Spirit who speaks through the faithful words of the preacher to the attentive hearts of the congregation.  According to Peter, the angels, God’s own messengers, are so interested in what is being proclaimed by faithful preachers, they bend over to listen to what is going on.

And so we can believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead because in the New Testament and in faithful preaching the teaching, the testimonies of the Apostolic witnesses are preserved.  So long as my preaching is based on teachings of the Apostles who witnessed the event, and is carried from my mouth to your ears by the Holy Spirit then you are hearing God’s holy word.

When we hear and understand the word of God proclaimed we are filled with the hope of receiving the grace of Jesus Christ revealed in his resurrection.  That is what brings us to new life in Jesus Christ.  As you sit at home watching or reading this sermon, you are being transformed by God’s word into God’s obedient children.  That is why, as we listen to the word of God more and more, we find ourselves leaving our old lives behind, our lives of dishonesty, drunkenness, promiscuity, violence, and anger.  We begin to realize that these things are in our pasts and were washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Recently I heard a story from a woman working in the entertainment industry.  She had been a talented singer at one point, but her lifestyle eventually caught up with her and the hope of a promising career turned into a night of darkness and desperation.  She contemplated suicide as the only solution to her problems.  But then she looked at the calendar and saw that it was Christmas Eve.  She did not know Jesus, but he seemed like the only alternative for someone in her situation.  So she prayed that Jesus would send his spirit to help her.  And that night she received new life in Jesus Christ.  I can’t say that a story as dramatic as this one will happen to everyone who accepts Christ in their lives.  But I can say that Christ is offering new lives to anyone who comes to him.

In worship, we have the opportunity to ask Christ for new life.  We come into the presence of God.  We hear the word of God read and proclaimed.   Christ’s work of transformation has already begun. 

This should terrify us and scare us to death.  Approaching God in this way should fill us with fear, awe, reverence, and wonder.  We should be amazed at what is happening.  Coming into the presence of God to hear his word in worship can’t help but be transforming.  A new life can’t help but be terrifying to someone who is comfortable in his old life.  But if the word of God is faithfully preached and heard then we will come into the presence of God and our lives will never be the same.

When this happens and we find ourselves with new lives.  We just can’t stop giving glory to God for all he has done for us.  God has given us new lives, the forgiveness of our sin, and for the promise of eternal life.  Coming into the presence of God has the effect of purifying our lives. We become holy just as God is holy.

And this allows us to do what God really wants us to do.  God gives us new lives so that we will love each other, genuinely, truly, love one another.  This is an intense, fervent concern for the well being of the people in the church, in our community, and around the world.  We are to love each other as much as God loved his own son.  And this love will burn in us forever because it is indivisible from the new life we have in Christ.

There is an old story about a man named William Beeterwolf.  Dr. Beeterwolf lived around a hundred years ago.  One day he was working on a scaffold three stories above the ground. Dr. Beeterwolf tripped and plunged to the ground for what appeared to be certain death.  But a workman below saw Dr. Beeterwolf falling to the ground directly above him so he braced himself breaking Dr. Beeterwolf’s fall and saving his life.  But as a result of breaking Dr. Beeterwolf’s fall nearly every bone in his own body was broken.
The crippled man was asked how Dr. Beeterwolf had treated him since the fall.  He replied saying, “Well he gave me half of everything he owns.  I also have a share in his business.  He never lets me want for a thing.  He is constantly concerned about me and hardly a day passes that I don't receive from him some little token of remembrance.”

This is a wonderful story of gratitude and love.  Remember that Jesus died for you so that you could live a new life.  Like Dr. Beeterwolf we should be grateful to Jesus for giving us new life.  And our response to Christ’s sacrifice for us should be to love one another as much as God loves us.

So, the word of God, preached and heard, is what God uses to transform our lives into people who love one another.  That is why it is so important to immerse yourselves regularly in the Bible.  That is why it is so important to worship at home and in church.  Through this, you take on a new life and become more holy, hopeful, and loving.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, speak to us through the preaching and hearing of the word of God. Through this transform us into the children of God so that we can love others as fully as you love us.  Continue to speak to us your transformative word through the Bible and my preaching.  We pray this in your glorious name. Amen.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Sermon – 1 Peter 1:3-9 “New Life in Christ”

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon – 1 Peter 1:3-9 “New Life in Christ”
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church - Home Worship
April 19, 2020

Order of Worship for the Second Sunday of Easter

Open the Eyes of My Heart - Nick

How Great Thou Art - YouTube

Be Still My Heart - YouTube

Watch a video of this sermon.

This morning I am beginning a series of sermons on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  As we saw last week, Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event that gives us a glimpse of a glorious future reality when all of God's people will be resurrected into God’s re-creation of the world.  Today we will look at one of the implications of the resurrection for the followers of Jesus, now that we have new life in Christ.  Will you pray with me?

Lord Jesus, we know that you now sit on the right hand of God ready to rule this earth.  We come to you as your people and pray that you will transform us into God’s children.  Mold us into the lives that you would have us live.  And we pray this in your strong name.  Amen.

1 Peter 1:3-9   3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,  5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.  6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials,  7 so that the genuineness of your faith-- being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,  9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Although I grew up going to church with my parents, I stopped almost as soon as I went to college.  This is common as many people find this transition difficult.  There are many people in their 20s and 30s who have stopped going to church.  Many of these will return when life events occur: a parent dies, a marriage starts, a child is born.  I went back to church after my mother died because I needed something that was old and familiar.  Church seemed like the right thing.  And I assumed that if I went back to church many of my problems would be solved.  My business would grow.  I would have more friends and find a wife.  I would be happier.

     Although I came closer to God as I attended worship, the problems I had experienced continued.  Christianity, I found was not something that solves all your problems like a good luck charm.  And when we find that our problems remain we are tempted to conclude that church is worthless and it is time to leave.  It was to a group of people in a similar situation, who believed in Christ but their problems continued, to whom Peter wrote his letter.

     The Apostle Peter wrote what we now call First Peter from Rome near the end of his long and important career.  Originally he was known as Cephas, a fisherman on the Lake of Galilee.  He lived in Capernaum, a city on the shore of the lake and on the main highway leading from Egypt to Damascus.  So he grew up meeting people from different ethnic groups, cultures, and languages.  One day he was asked by a rabbi from Nazareth to follow him as a disciple, which he did.  And his life was never the same after that.

     Cephas knew better than anyone else what it means to follow Jesus.  He knew that it was not easy.  He knew that following Jesus might not turn out as he expected. But he also knew of Jesus’ love, grace, and forgiveness.   Jesus knew that Cephas, though not perfect, was stable and strong so he renamed him “Petros” or Peter, which means “rock”.  Jesus used Peter as the bedrock upon which he would build his church.

In the first thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the church experienced spectacular growth.  Peter was partially responsible as an evangelist who went out from Jerusalem to other communities.  His activities are not as well known as Paul’s because they are not covered as well in the Book of Acts, and the only writings we have from Peter are two short letters in the New Testament.

In the Book of 1 Peter we have a circular letter that was sent to a group of churches in Asia Minor.  A messenger would arrive at one church, read the letter to the congregation and then move on to the next church.  The people in these churches were experiencing the cost of following Jesus and needed encouragement.  So Peter was encouraging them to maintain their faith even in the midst of their hardships.

The Christians in these churches had experienced difficulty in their lives.  Many of them, before accepting Christ, participated in the debauchery of popular culture.  They would get drunk; have sex outside of marriage and so forth.  But once they encountered Jesus they stopped drinking and were faithful to their spouses.  This strained the relationships they had with friends who continued in their old type of behavior.  Christians were considered asocial.

These Christians also had problems politically.  By following Christ they would necessarily stop worshiping the pagan god of their city.  Now the city leaders had no problem with Christians worshiping their own god because in pagan culture there were many gods to worship.  But by not worshiping the god or goddess of the city they were risking the displeasure of that god.  And if misfortune happened to the city, then the Christians would be blamed.  Christians who did not worship the god of the city were called atheists.

     Another problem was that by calling Jesus Christ “Lord” Christians were denying the lordship of Caesar thus opening themselves up to charges of treason.  So Christians were considered asocial, atheistic, and treasonous and thus were ostracized by their culture.

In this letter, Peter begins by assuring them that the new life they have experienced in Jesus Christ is not their choice but an act of God.  Just as God raised Jesus from the dead to new life so too does God raise us, through the waters of baptism, into our new lives.  In our new lives, we have a new way of looking at our problems. The world we live in suggests that we should despair over these problems.  But Peter wants us to focus not on the problems of today but on our present new lives in Christ and our future hope of resurrection through faith in Jesus Christ.  Just as the Israelites were promised land by God centuries ago so too does God promise us an inheritance of forgiveness of sin and eternal life.  And God also promises protection in this life through our faith and the promised salvation.

Peter points out that Christian faith is not permanent.  He should know.  When Jesus needed him most Peter denied ever knowing him.  Three times Peter denied him as Jesus was on trial for his life.  This memory must have haunted Peter his entire life.  And it was a story, the church knew well.  Peter eventually realized that the faith he now has is far stronger because of this experience, just as gold is refined in a fire so too was his faith refined by sin and suffering.  So Peter is urging the congregations to persevere in the faith even in the midst of their suffering because the faith that survives suffering is much stronger.

So if you are lonely because of the coronavirus, or wondering where the money will come from to make your next mortgage payment, or if you worrying if it is time to go into a retirement home, or if you have lost a job, or if a loved one is suffering from the virus, remember to maintain your faith in Jesus Christ and God will sustain you and comfort you.  And in the end, your faith will be even stronger than it is now.

Of course, it is difficult keeping faith when troubles befall us.  When the world looks bleak it is hard to see Jesus at work.  When a loved one dies, or home is lost to foreclosure, it is tempting to wonder where Jesus is.  But if we keep the faith through these times the promise of scripture is that Jesus will be revealed to us.  When we see Jesus in the midst of our pain, our response turns from gloom to joy, praise, glory, and honor because we experience the great love of Jesus in our lives.  And this allows us to love Jesus even though we have never seen him in person.

So rejoice in the Lord because of all the benefits you have received.  Rejoice for the steadfast love that God has given you.  Rejoice for the salvation of your life from sin and death.  Rejoice for your hope in a future resurrection.  And rejoice in the new life that has been given to you through your faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Let’s pray.

  Father in heaven, we thank you for the wonderful gifts of salvation and eternal life that you have provided us.  Help us to deal with the difficulties of our lives.  And help us to keep our faith by revealing to us Jesus Christ in the world around us.  In this, we rejoice and offer praise, glory, and honor to you. Amen. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Sermon John 20: 1-18 "Coming to Belief"

Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard
Sermon John 20: 1-18 "Coming to Belief" 
Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday
April 12, 2020

Home Worship

The following songs are performed by Nick, Jennifer, and Samatha.   They recorded their voices at home and their voices were brought together for this virtual performance.

Man of Sorrows

He Lives

Raise a Hallelujah

The Day of Resurrection

Easter Order of Worship

Bulletin Insert

One Great Hour of Sharing

Watch a video of this sermon

Good morning and welcome to Pittsgrove Presbyterian Church this Easter morning.   We are still worshiping at home because of the virus.  So please use this for home worship with your families.

John 20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Today is the day we remember the greatest event in all of history.  Numerous people of impeccable character testified to the undeniable fact that Jesus was raised from the dead.  The only question left is whether or not we believe it.  We will get to this, but first, let’s pray.

“Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen.” (John Calvin)

The Gospel of John is about belief.  The key text in this important book comes from the third chapter and the sixteenth verse “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The promise of Easter is that you will have eternal life.  You will live forever in the presence of God.   But before we receive this promise we must first do something.  We must believe.  But believe in what?  What are we supposed to believe to receive this wonderful gift of eternal life?  The content of our belief is what we celebrate on Easter.  We believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  But how does someone come to this belief?  What is the process of conversion from unbelief to belief? The twentieth chapter of John gives us two examples of people coming out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of faith.

You heard, in the first line of today’s scripture these words.  “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark”.  On that Easter morning, the world was shrouded in darkness; belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ had not yet started.  Then after a missing stone and a foot race the disciple that Jesus loved looked into an empty tomb.  This disciple became the first person to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He came to believe because of what he saw, or in his case what he didn't see.

Sometimes we come to believe in Jesus by seeing God in the world around us.  We see God in the beauty of our forests and streams and rivers and coastlines.  We see God in the faces of believers as they volunteer in church, or in other non-profits.  We see God in the stories shared by seniors in nursing homes.  We see God in the children as they learn Bible stories.  We see God as we share bread and wine in the Lord's Supper.  God has blessed us with eyes with which we can see him in the world he created.  The disciple Jesus loved saw an empty tomb, he remembered Jesus' teachings and he knew that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.  He believed in Jesus Christ and was promised eternal life.

So I urge you this Easter to look for Jesus in the world around you.  Look for Jesus when the children enjoy their chocolate bunnies and jelly beans.  Look for Jesus when your family sits down for a meal.   Look for Jesus in the loving eyes of those caring for children or for aging parents.  Use your eyes to look for Jesus in the world and you will be blessed with belief that he was truly resurrected from the dead with the promise for you of eternal life.

But seeing with our eyes is only one of the two ways we have of coming to belief.  The other is contained in the twentieth chapter of John, verses 11-18.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her,“Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her,

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”, and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene saw Jesus with her own eyes, but even though she saw she still did not believe.  For some of us, we need more than just seeing God at work in the world around us for us to come to belief.  Sometimes we just don't believe what we see.  Like Mary, we need something more.  Mary turned away from Jesus and was not looking at him when the following happened.  Jesus spoke to her and said her name.  Mary Magdalene came to belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ not with her eyes but with her ears.  She believed in Jesus Christ when she heard Jesus say her name, and she received the promise of eternal life.

We can hear God's voice calling us through the scripture we read and hear proclaimed.  We come to belief in Jesus Christ by allowing God's voice to speak to us through the Bible.  That's why it is so important to start every day with God's word and prayer.  That's why it is so important to study God's word.  That's why it is so important to hear God's voice through the proclamation of the Gospel each Sunday morning.  Through all of these things we can hear God call our names and like Mary Magdalene come to belief with the promise of eternal life.

Once Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her name, her eyes were opened and she could see him in the world.  This is what happens to us.  After we hear God's voice in our meditations, study, and worship we then begin to see God in the world around us.  The Bible was written by people who had heard God's voice and saw God doing things.  They wrote these things down and the church has preserved them for us.  So as we are immersed in the Scripture we are better able to see God in our world.  Our study of the word of God helps us to see God in the world.  So our eyes and our ears work together to bring us to belief in Jesus Christ.  With our ears, we hear God speak to us in the church through the pages of the Bible.  This helps to recognize God in the world we see with our eyes.  Though hearing and seeing we come to belief.

Later that night the disciples gathered back in the upper room.  They heard Mary Magdalene's report of her encounter with the risen Jesus.  Then they saw Jesus in the room with them.  They heard with their ears and saw with their eyes and came to belief.  Like these disciples, we are a people who have heard God speaking to us through the scripture.  We are also a people who can see God at work in the world around us.  So we are a people who believe.  And on this Easter Sunday, we believe with the disciple that Jesus loved and with Mary Magdalene and with the other disciples that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  This belief comes with a promise.  Because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has promised us eternal life.  This is what we celebrate at Easter.

And like Mary Magdalene and the disciples we just can't wait to proclaim to the world what we have heard and seen.  “I have seen the Lord”, said Mary to the disciples.   What will you say to the people you meet about what you have seen and heard?  I urge you to go and tell everyone the good news that Jesus Christ has been resurrected from dead.  All who believe this receive the gift of eternal life.  This may sound like something too good to be true.  But it is true, we have heard it and seen it.  So proclaim it as the truth to everyone you meet so they will hear it too and come to belief.

The Easter story in John begins with the darkness of unbelief.  But then through hearing and seeing belief comes into the world.  This belief is that Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has been resurrected from the dead.  He lives!  Believe in your heart what others have heard and seen that Jesus conquered death.  As believers, you will now receive the gift of eternal life.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, we thank you for the gift of faith.  Through your voice in scripture and through your work in the world we have heard you and seen you.  So we believe in your resurrection from the dead and anticipate our own resurrections when we will live forever with you, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. Help us to proclaim this good news to everyone we know.  This we pray in your holy name.  Amen.