Fifth Sunday of Easter

Greater Works Ministry

Today we read about the first martyr of the Christian faith:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.   (Acts 7:55-60)

Why were the people so agitated at Stephen? Stephen had been appointed as a Deacon or servant of the Church, to assist the Apostles in the ministry so that they would have more time to devote themselves to the study of God’s word. But Stephen was no ordinary believer:

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.  (Acts 6:8-12)

“Spirit-filled” Christians are often considered controversial, even in today’s Church. Stephen spoke with a certain spiritual authority that may have been off putting to some. People were not able to argue with him successfully. On top of that, he performed signs and wonders which were only supposed to be done by apostles, prophets, and, perhaps, some elders.
Perhaps signs and wonders are still misunderstood to this day. Are we supposed to do them? What did Jesus say about them? We read in today’s appointed Gospel that:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”   (John 14:8-14)

There are counterfeit signs and wonders. Satan is able to produce them. They seem very strange and disconnected from any apostolic teaching of the faith. The people who perform them are clearly not grounded in the scriptures. Stephen.was firmly grounded to the point that no one could successfully argue against what he was teaching.

Have we been chosen by God to do the “greater works” ministry. The Apostle Peter quoted the Old Testament prophecy:

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.

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.   (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Yes, we are chosen. But there is a secret in doing this ministry. We do not do it. Stephen did not do it. Jesus did not do it. We cannot do it. It is God the Father who does the signs and wonders. Our task is simply to believe in Jesus, and listen intently and do as the Father directs us. God in us does this ministry if we are gifted by him.

How did the skeptic Philip end up doing the ministry that Jesus prophesied to him. When the words of Jesus sank in this same Philip became a great evangelist. He began performing the “greater works” which Jesus promised. The signs and wonders he performed made a great impact on the people of Samaria when he preached the word there:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.   (Acts 8:4-8)

Are we ready to step into the “greater works” ministry? We must first step into Jesus and the Father by faith. Then we must receive the promise from the Father which is the Holy Spirit. If a skeptic like Philip could answer the call then why should we remain a skeptic when there is an exciting ministry ahead. But let us remember to never take credit for such a ministry. All the praise and glory belongs to God.

Stephen stood out because of the works that he did by the Spirit. Nonetheless, perhaps his greatest achievement is that he forgave those who were stoning him. We need to grow into the character of Jesus just as much, if not more, as the ministry of Jesus.

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Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Shepherd and  Guardian of Our Souls

We have one thing that is unique to us, and that is our souls. Our souls are a gift from God:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.   (Genesis 2:7)

A soul was given to us at birth. It is the only thing we have that truly belongs solely to us and no one else. Our soul will never die. It is a gift that extends far beyond this life. In fact, it lasts for an eternity. We have been given sole custody of it. Only God can access our soul, but that is by our invitation.

Our soul has been sent to earth to experience life and develop. We encounter the challenges of life which help develop and form our souls. Our soul become the product of how we respond to the challenges and opportunities of this life.

Do we want to do it alone? Or do we want to trust someone else to direct and define us? Perhaps the culture? Perhaps an entertainer or sports personality? Can we trust these sources to understand who we are and where we should be going?

There is another alternative. The Apostle Peter wrote:

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. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.   (1 Peter 2:24-25)

We live in confusing times. Numerous people and things vye for our attention. But what do they provide us?
We have another source:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”   (John 10:7-10)

Some may be wondering where that pasture is right now. Jesus will lead us there. He is our Good Shepherd. He may require some movement on our part, even physical relocation at times. Nonetheless, Jesus knows where the best pasture is for us.  In fact, he has chosen our best location as the last and final one. Will we trust him enough to follow him?

King David was called by God to lead his people. He was anointed by God to do so, but he faced many challenges and obstacles along the way. The enemy does not want us to succeed and he will everything that he can to discourage us. David wrote this famous psalm to share with us the source of his divine help:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.   (Psalm 23:1-6)

Today, who is our shepherd? Who is the guardian of our souls? This may be the most important question we will ever ponder. Our souls are presented with many choices and many paths, There is only one path that promises us life eternal in the presence of God. There is only one person who can make that promise.

The disciple Thomas was concerned about where Jesus was going:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  (John 14:5-6)
We have nothing to fear. Even though the future may seem doubtful, God is still in charge. Jesus tells us today:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”   (Matthew 11:28-29)

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St. Philip and St. James

Greater Works Ministry

Today we celebrate the lives and ministries of the Apostles Philip and James, son of Alphaeus, often called “the Less.” James was called this name to distinguish him from James, the brother of John. Little is known about him. We know that he was chosen by Jesus and that he was among the twelve disciples on the Day of Pentecost. He was possibly an early witness to the resurrection if he is the James as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:7.

James the Less was martyred for the Faith because he would not renounce Jesus as required by the Jewish high priest. Thus, James was faithful to the end and serves as an example for us all. Without the commitment of James, and others like him, we would not have the Church today.

Let us now turn to the Apostle Philip. In today’s New Testament reading, he seems to be having doubts when he asked Jesus a very important question:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”   (John 14:8-14)

When the words of Jesus sank in this same Philip became a great evangelist. He began performing the “greater works” which Jesus promised. The signs and wonders he performed made a great impact on the people of Samaria when he preached the word there:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.   (Acts 8:4-8)

How did the skeptic Philip grow into such a powerful evangelist? He meditated on the teachings of Jesus. Jesus explained that the greater works that Philip and others were called to do would be fulfilled in the same manner in which Jesus had fulfilled them in his earthly ministry. Jesus said:

“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”   (John 14:10)

Jesus could not do the works alone. God the Father, in him, did the works. This may sound strange to some. Let us we remember that the Son of God gave up all his divinity and spiritual power when he came to the earth. Jesus relied on prayer and his close relationship with the Father. He did as the Father directed him, with full faith and confidence in the Father.

Are we ready to step into the “greater works” ministry? We must first step into Jesus by faith and obedience. Then we must receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and keep on receiving it. If a skeptic like Philip could answer the call then why should we remain a skeptic when there is an exciting ministry ahead waiting for us? (See Greater Works.)

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Third Sunday of Easter

Were Not Our Hearts Burning within Us? 

As two travelers were walking on the road to Emmaus they were talking about the recent events in Jerusalem. A third man joined them on the way and asked them what they were disussing:

He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  (Luke 24:13-27)

We live in a confusing time. We hear and read conflicting information. Even the “expert” analysis often makes little sense. Who are we to believe? Where are we to turn for help in understanding our complex world and its challenging circumstances?

The two travelers walking to Emmaus needed help. They were hearing numerous reports but unsure about what to believe. What they needed was a reliable report with expert interpretation. What they received while on the road was the Word of God interpreted by the Word of God made flesh. Jesus became their guide along the way. Things were starting to make sense for them. They became excited about what they were hearing and beginning to understand.

Today we need Jesus more than ever. We need his words, his wisdom, and his direction for our lives.

Jesus wants to share with us a deeper meaning of his death and resurrection. We need to be attentive to what he is saying. The travelers on the road were eager to hear even more of Jesus:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”   (Luke 24:28-33)

Jesus imparts wisdom and understanding through his word. He imparts healing and strength through his body and blood which he shares with us during Holy Communion. Do we hunger and thirst for all that he has for us? Are our hearts burning within us as we listen attentively to his word?

We are on the road of life. Our final destination will be determined by how much we receive from our Lord. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the gate. He is the door. No one comes to the Father except through him.

The ruler of this age, the enemy of our souls, will do everything he can to distract us and confuse us. His goal is to drown out the Word of God. It is time that we wake up. He controls the media, the entertainment industry, and even some of our churches. What he offers has little value. In fact, it is designed to sap our energy, kill us before our time, and even steal our inheritance in Christ. There is a far better alternative. In the words of the Apostle:

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 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.   (1 Peter 1:18-23)

Jesus poured his all for us. In him we have all that we need. The sojourners on the road to Emmaus were blessed to hear from the Lord Jesus himself. But Jesus is still speaking today. He is risen. He is the world made flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us. Should we not invite him to walk along with us so that we might hear the words of life?

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