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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The great American preacher and author of “The Power of Positive Thinking” Norman Vincent Peale once said, “Promises are like crying babies in a theater, they should be carried out at once.” Mind you, Peale wasn’t criticizing the crying child. He was challenging ordinary men and women, like you and me, to be faithful to “keeping their word.” From the time we leave our parents’ care, we have embraced the phrases as “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep,”- and, “Remember, promises mean nothing without the accompanying actions.” Yes, keeping your word, keeping your promises, are like babies: easy to make, hard to deliver.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that not only are they to keep their words, but they are to keep his word as well, “Those who love me will keep my word.” It sounds simple, but there are so many things in life which complicate our best intentions. Simply look at the challenges of marriage and parenting, or the working of our business world. Sometimes keeping your word is relatively easy—you make a promise to do something and you do it. But my friends, “keeping your word” goes beyond that. Integrity of words and purpose means living a life that is the same in private as it is in public. Living Jesus’ word to the fullest involves struggle. And we often hear voices around us asking: Is this struggle really worth it?
Today, I would like to assure you that keeping Jesus’ word is worthy of all your efforts, and his word makes all the difference in your living and in your dying. But I would also like to assure you that need not be afraid of going it alone, God has sent his Holy Spirit to walk with you.
Many Christians today, are actually confused about the importance of keeping Jesus’ word. Either they obsess about every little detail of Scripture in an effort to obey God’s word perfectly, or they choose to ignore biblical teachings altogether. Many of us even assume that our kind and forgiving Jesus’ commands will be easier to obey than God’ words. With Jesus, all we have to do is believe, love God, and love others, and we’re just fine. But a quick overview of just a portion of Jesus’ teachings makes it clear that he doesn’t make it easier for us to keep his word, but he makes it harder. Love your enemies, pray for those who curse you, turn the other cheek. As Mark Twain once said of God’s word, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible which I can’t understand which trouble me, it’s the parts I do understand.”
But it isn’t just Jesus’ moral and ethical teaching which confound us. Sometimes, we even struggle with his greatest promise- eternal life. We are often pulled in two directions. The more fearful Christians would state that we are being pulled between heaven and hell. Which might be true. Although, I was reminded in Bible Study that preachers don’t talk about fire and brimstone, or the devil much anymore. This in turn reminded me of poorly placed announcement in a church bulletin. “Wednesday Evening Professor Geoffrey will speak on the theme What ever happened to Hell? Followed immediately by, “Come early and listen to the choir sing.” But to be honest, we don’t speak much about heaven either. It is a theme for Easter sermons and funerals. And that’s too bad. For I rather suspect that most Christians are not torn between heaven and hell, but they are torn heaven and earth. We want to go to heaven, but this life holds great appeal.
Now, we shouldn’t feel guilty for having a strong desire to enjoy life. Marriage, a family, a fulfilling job, travel, recreation – these are God’s blessings and they have a legitimate charm. But if the delights of our earthly home are so attractive that we lose sight of God’s very purpose for putting us here, something’s wrong. You see, you and I have been destined for the gates of heaven. We have been created in God’s image to dwell with him in his eternal home forever. God has prepared a place for you. Surprisingly, many in our world do not give heaven a second thought. They do not see heaven as a destination; heaven is a reward granted to all of God’s faithful, even to those who have not made the journey – even for those who do not keep Jesus’ word, or their own.
I rather suspect that on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, Jesus’ disciples were questioning whether their Master’s Father’s House was a final reward or destination. They wondered where they were heading. They were fully aware that in very short while, the world they knew was going to collapse in chaos before their very eyes. They would soon be hitting the road alone. So how could they keep moving onward? How? They had learned that there would be crossroads on life’s journey when they would have to believe what they could not see, prove, accept, nor understand. For those unmarked stretches, faith inspires and encourages you on your way. And heaven is that final destination that keeps us on course.
Fortunately, for Jesus’ followers, keeping his word is not a weekend, do-it-yourself project. Jesus promised his followers that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” With the Spirit’s help, you can live a life of keeping God’s ways, which means a life of fulfilling our promise to follow Jesus. We need to remind ourselves that we are not saved by living a good life, or even by taking our regular place in church. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. He alone has gone ahead to prepare a place for you. Keeping Jesus’ word, ultimately, is about building a relationship with him.
A former parishioner, gathered and edited a book, she titled, “The Support Group Sourcebook.” She narrated the story of mother’s journey of faith after her 12 year-old daughter was struck down by lightning on the Gunflint Trail. Through the nurturing of the support group Compassionate Friends, the mother grew to affirm Christ’s promise. The mother said, “I knew in my heart of hearts that she was in heaven. The last message she left on her whiteboard was a paraphrasing of Psalm 23; ‘ Even though I walk through the darkness, your rod and staff will guide me every day.’ It’s still there. I haven’t erased it. The mother trusted her daughter was in heaven. “Now I needed to know how to get there, because I want to see my baby again.” And so began the mother’s great spiritual awakening. She changed from having religion to having a relationship with God. “All those years of going to church and reading and memorizing,” she said, “had meant nothing to me. Now my personal relationship with God has given me peace.” You see, heaven was no longer a reward for religion. Heaven had become a destination. And in heaven she trusted her family would be complete again someday. She discovered that she needed to “keep Jesus’ word” active in her life.
On this Memorial Day weekend, as we remember the acts of courage of the brave men and women who lived and died for our country “Keeping Jesus’ Word,” let me remind you of the ways in which faith makes all the difference.
First of all, keeping Jesus’ word makes a difference in how you act. The psychologist Victor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” once described the reactions of two brothers with the same heredity, the same environment, in the same concentration camp under the Nazis. One became a saint and the other a swine. Frankl tells us the reason why. He said, “Each man has within him the power to choose how he will react to any given situation.” Keeping Jesus’ word makes a difference in how you act.
Second, keeping Jesus’ word makes a difference in how you live. Not many of you will preach a sermon from this pulpit, or perhaps even quote a Bible verse this coming week to another person. But you can, if you are willing, preach a sermon every day with your life. You can become the incarnate Word of God in the way you treat other people. And when I speak of other people I am referring especially to the “little people” in your life, people without clout, people who do not have much effect on your life one way or another, those whom it would be easy to ignore. For the real test of Christian integrity is not how you treat your peers and colleagues, but rather the real test of your witness is how you treat the little, anonymous people in your life. Keeping Jesus’ word makes a difference in how you live.
And finally, Keeping Jesus’ word makes a difference in how you die? In the late 1800’s, a Yankee Clipper long narrow sailing vessel, struck rocks off the coast of Maine. It began to sink quickly with all hands aboard. Some fisherman in a tiny village saw the boat begin to flounder and immediately pushed off in one of their row boats to help save their comrades who were floating in the icy water. A man, who remained on shore, shouted out to them, “You fools! Don’t you know you will never get back. The waves are twenty feet high and the wind is screaming over the ocean at thirty knots.” One of them manning the oars in the fishing boat, shouted back, “We have to go out! We don’t have to go back.” Keeping Jesus’s word makes a difference in how you die.
That is what Jesus was praying for his disciples. And what you and I are encouraged to teach our children in reading scripture, worship and prayer and “keeping his word.” The peace that Jesus offers, which the world cannot give, is not simply the peace of “happy ending” after Jesus’ death. No, it is the peace of a happy beginning which begins now in God’s new creation. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.