Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Our Mutual Friend, Jesus

Acts 11:1-18 and Revelation 21:1-6

 

 It is the last vision, the final word of the Bible:  A New Heaven and New Earth.  The Bible begins with creation and ends with new creation.  The old disappears to make way for the new.  And the sea is gone.

 Well, that seems kind of weird, doesn’t it?  What’s wrong with the sea?  What are all these beach lovers going to do in the new creation?  Where am I going to paddle a canoe in the new creation?  

 As usual, there is a reason for this statement.  And as usual, it is cultural in its origin.  In the ancient world, the sea was often thought of as a place of death.  The sea is big and powerful and unpredictable.  Many who go out on the sea never return.  In the first century, they were basically still navigating by shorelines.  They seldom would cross large open stretches of water.  They were afraid to go out of sight of the land.  

 But there is more to it.  The sea was also seen as a place of chaos and evil.  Many ancient Near East myths portrayed the “waters below,” the sea, being inhabited by a great dragon, a powerful and evil being.  In the book of Revelation, the sea, the abyss, is the place from which evil comes:  Satan, the great dragon, and the Beast who rises up out of the sea.  In a new creation that is free from evil and rebellion, there is no place culturally for “the sea.”  But there is water, of course.  And I don’t think that we need to spend a whole lot of time speculating about these things.  

 “And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  The city is not made by human hands, but comes from God, just as Hebrews 11 says of God’s people, “They were looking for a heavenly homeland that God has prepared for them.”  

 Now Jerusalem is both the city and the people who inhabit it.  Since the people of New Jerusalem, the Church, the redeemed, are the bride of Christ, the city is adorned like a bride prepared for her husband.  

 All the imagery of these last chapters of Revelation comes directly from the Old Testament prophets.  In Isaiah 65 and 66, God speaks of creating a new heavens and earth.  In Isaiah 60 and Ezekiel 40-48, we read about a New Jerusalem, a perfected Jerusalem, where God dwells with his people for all eternity.  

 “And the home of God is with his people now!”  Where is God?  Well, in a sense, God is everywhere at every time.  But we also know that in a sinful world, our perception of God is limited.  We can’t see God as Adam and Eve could before sin entered the creation.  So in Scripture, we see God’s presence especially in certain places:  The Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Covenant; the Church in the New Covenant.  But in the renewed creation, that will no longer be the case.  God’s presence will be obvious in every place.

 And all the effects of sin in this creation will be gone:  Death and crying and mourning and pain will be no more.  This is our joy and our hope.  No matter what heartache and struggle we have in this life, it is not the end of the story.  Death and pain and sadness do not have the last word.  God will make all things new.

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  In the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters.  And in Greek, the word beginning also means source or origin.  And the word end also means goal or destination or purpose.  God is the beginning, the origin, the source of all things.  And God is the end, the goal, and the purpose of all things.  Everything comes from God, goes to God, and finds its purpose in God.  As Paul said in Romans 11:36:  “For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory.”  

 “To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life.”  For what are these people thirsty?  They are thirsty for God.  All who sincerely hunger and thirst for God and who acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and Savior find a place at the table at the wedding feast of the Lamb.  

 And I believe that when we arrive at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which is what Revelation calls this final culmination of God’s salvation, I sincerely believe that we will all be surprised to find out with whom we are sharing the table.  

 It’s always a little surprising when we find unknown connections.  That’s something that happens in a lot of ways.  You get talking to some stranger and find out that you both know someone.  Or you both come from the same hometown.  Or you share some common interest.

 I’ve seen this on Facebook.  When you see someone else on Facebook, you can look at their profile and see if you have any mutual friends.  And it always surprises me when I find that a friend I know from one area of life knows someone that I know from

another area of life.  On Facebook, I have friends from my hometown and my high school.  I have friends from college.  I have friends from seminary.  I have friends from churches where I have served, and also friends from the church in general.  And sometimes I’ll find out that there are connections between those folks.  Someone I went to high school with knows someone I went to college with, and so on.  That’s always a little surprising.  It’s that “It’s a small world after all” feeling.  

 I think that when we get to eternal life in Christ, we’ll be surprised to find out that a lot of people we weren’t expecting to see there also have Jesus as a “mutual friend.”  As long as they know Jesus as Lord and Savior and hunger and thirst for the things of God, they also have a seat at the table.

 We must beware not to fall into the trap that some of the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem fell into, the trap of declaring that some people are unacceptable to God when, in fact, God has already declared them to be acceptable. 

 In chapter 10 of Acts, for the first time, the gospel goes out to uncircumcised Gentiles.  Now the gospel had already gone beyond strictly Jewish circles before this.  It had gone to Gentiles who had converted and become Jews.  It had gone to the Samaritans.  But the Samaritans were like “second cousins” to the Jews.  It had gone to the Ethiopian eunuch.  But Ethiopia had contact with Israel in the Old Testament, and I think we should understand that he was a “circumcised Gentile.”  Circumcision was seen as a dividing line between people of God and those were not by most Jews.

 But then Peter was directed by God to go to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a decidedly uncircumcised Gentile.  Peter preaches the gospel in this Gentile home.  And the Holy Spirit falls on them, just as it had on the 120 gathered in the upper room.  Peter says, “How could I stand in the way of what God was doing?”  

 But some were upset.  When he returns to Jerusalem, some say to him, “How could you go into the home of uncircumcised Gentiles.  You even ate with them?”  You see, eating together in Jewish culture was more than just being hungry at the same place and same time.  To eat together was a display of friendship, trust, and equality.  How could Peter treat uncircumcised Gentiles as equals?  

 But when Peter relates the story of what God had done, they were silenced.  They accepted that God was doing something they had not expected.  We know that not all of them accepted it.  Even decades later, Paul was struggling with what he called

“Judaizers,” Jewish Christians who demanded that Gentile converts to Christ had to become Jews first in order to become Christians second.  

 Is there a contemporary relevance to all this?  Yes, I would most certainly say there is!  We live an incredibly divided culture.  We are divided male versus female, rich versus poor, black versus white, young versus old, liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, native born versus immigrant, and the list goes on.  And the divisiveness of our culture seems to be getting worse and worse as time goes on.

 Have these divisions crept into the Church?  Yes.  It’s easy for us to be judgmental toward those first century Judaizers who divided Jew from uncircumcised Gentile, but are we really doing any better?  Is the Church today any less divided?  

 The Church should be united.  Jesus said so, praying, “May they be one as you and I are one.”  But we are certainly not as united as the Father and the Son.  

 When we sit at the table, we will find ourselves feasting with young and old, male and female, rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, and so on.  So why do we divide ourselves now?  Is it because we care more about what divides us than what unites us?  Are we more in love with our politics, our gender, our race, our social class, our nationality than we are in love with Jesus?  That’s a scary question, because I think that in some cases, the answer is yes.  

 I’m not always as faithful in this as I would like to be.  We’re supposed to be on the same team, but sometimes, I find myself saying, “I don’t want to be on their team!”  

 As a good Wesleyan Christian, Wesley who said, “If your heart is as mine, take my hand,” I want to cooperate and work together with other believers.  But what do I do when they don’t want to be on the same team as me?  In our Ministerium, I can tell you, not all the voices are present.  We have Lutherans, Presbyterians, Brethren, and Methodists working together.  But we don’t have Baptists and Catholics working together.  Most of the independent churches in our area don’t cooperate either.  And the prideful part of me says, “If you don’t want to be on my team, I don’t want to be on yours!”  

 But I know what we should do.  We should err on the side of grace.  It is foolish for us to assume that God is not at work among or that God cannot teach us through those who are not just like us.  

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