Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:35

Have you ever been told by someone else, “I know better than you; Just follow my lead?”  You are new to a sport, perhaps it is skiing, for an example, and a friend is helping you to learn how to be better at it.  You think you have the basics down, but you may not have the proper technique.  It would be in your best interest to listen to the person who has more experience than you.  You probably did not want to hear that when you are a child and learning how to swim.  You just wanted to swim.  “But the doggie paddle works just fine, I can swim this way!”  What the teacher knows is that the doggie paddle can last you for a few minutes, but after that time you are going to grow tired.  If you want to truly swim, you need to learn other strokes that are more resting and provide you with more endurance.  Sometimes we may not like having to follow someone’s lead, but, if it is meant to help, it can be one of the best things that we do.  When is the last time you told God to take the wheel and lead you?  You may think that you can do it all on your own at times, and that life goes pretty well, but what about when you get tired?  Do you want to throw in the towel, and forget everything you ever learned in church, or do you want to lean on a teacher who can help you through?  When you try to be your own lead, you do not make it through as long as you do when God is your lead.  God knows better than us; God can be our lead.

We read Paul’s conversation story a couple weeks ago.  He was a man named Saul who persecuted the Christian church.  God came to him in a vision and changed his heart.  He came to a disciple of God named Ananias, who knelt with him and prayed so that scales may be removed from his eyes and that he might see again.  From that point forward, he learned from the disciples and was a changed man.  Although Paul was the one converted in this story, it is important to realize that the main story in this and every conversion story is God.  There is a consistent theme in the Bible that states that when God is the agent of change, all things are possible.  This is an exercise of trust.  We are trusting God to make the change.  When Saul came to the disciples, they knew of his reputation.  They knew that there was a risk that he could reveal their location to authorities if he was not truly genuine.  But they felt that the call was from God, and they trusted God as they worked with him.  Joseph S. Harvard summarized the worth of this risk: “Even when we feel uneasy like Ananias, we can remember that he nonetheless did what God asked” (FOTW C.406).  We can say the same of the disciples.  Our challenge is to ask ourselves if we can say the same of us.  Can we affirm to ourselves that God knows the way better than us?  We know of many who have said or been convinced that they knew better than God, but God’s word always prevails.  In Acts 11:8-9 Peter refuses to obey the Lord’s command: “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”  “But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”  As we walk through this world, and we meet people who have different traditions, different beliefs, and different everything, we know that we are called to love them all the same.  Even when the world picks battles with us, we need to come through with trust in God.  When the disciples were overwhelmed with sorrow and confusion in the weeks following Easter, they had to lean on their trust as well.  We are no different; if not, we are more so because we have not seen the physically risen Lord appear to us.  At least I can speak for myself when I say that I have not seen Jesus in the flesh; I can’t speak for everyone here.  My first challenge for you today is this: Even when you are filled with doubt, or you feel like you are being asked to take a risk for God, what can you do to take a leap of faith anyway?  For some, it may be a verbal explanation: “My Lord, and my God!”  Or it may be jumping out of the boat and swimming to the shore to Jesus when he appeared on the beach in John 21.  What can you do to increase your trust in the overwhelming presence of doubt?  What can you do to stabilize your faith when everything else seeks to destabilize it?  As we touched on last week in Psalm 23 as well, the Lord makes a path for us and even sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies.  We do not need to escape what is in the world and what it teaches us to live our lives in trust of our God.  As I write my sermons I sometimes listen to worship music; as I wrote this section this refrain kept repeating: “If our God is for us, then who can ever stop us, and if our God is with us, then what can stand against?!”  God is all that we will ever need.  It should be our life’s work to try to learn to trust Him and to try to teach others to be able to do the same.

If our first challenge is to trust God in challenging circumstances (it is a second message series to learn how we know that God is the one we hear and we will revisit this in our prayer series following Pentecost), our second is found in Acts 11:12: “Not to make a distinction between them and us.”  This is what the Spirit told Peter and his brothers in regards to traveling with the Gentiles.  We can broaden this statement to include all those who do not do things the way we like or appreciate.  Our mission is only to love and better ourselves as best we can, by learning how to trust God and so much else, and then to teach others how we do it.  It is not to cause divisions among God’s people.  We are a united church of Christ.  We are one body of Christ.  We can liken our worship experiences to Psalm 148 in this spirit, where everything in existence is called upon to praise the Lord: “Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!  Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!  Young men and women alike, old and young together!  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven” (Psalm 148:10-13).  We can praise the Lord altogether; it makes no difference who we are so long as God is at the center.  If we can praise God with God at the center of each of our lives, we can join together to praise God through the storm.  You can praise God through your storm.  You can do that because God has never left you.  God never abandons us in the storm; it is we who stop looking for him.

When you think about the new creation, what do you dream of?  I think it is close to Psalm 148: all the world is filled with praise and unity.

When you organize a wedding or a large family gathering, do you dream that everyone will unify for the purposes of celebrating, and shower praise on the wedding party or the graduate, or do you dream of the division that may be blossoming between members of the same family?  I’ve talked to some who have had families who used birthdays and graduation ceremonies to bicker.  We do not dream of that.  But even when we accept that a wedding or a graduation will not be filled with perfect unity and praise, can we not still dream it?  That is also what we do in an imperfect world where we still have faith in God’s ultimate reality.

Hear these words from a Lutheran pastor in Virginia, understanding that the world is as frightening to us as it was to the disciples who Jesus preached to: “The original commandments were given to the community of God’s people in the wilderness, in order that they would get through an unfamiliar and frightening place together. This is how we make it. This is what we do.  The new commandment given to the disciples anticipates their disorientation and gives them the key to re-orienting in life after Jesus’ death: love each other.  Love is not just for their own good, though it certainly will help them through the tough times ahead. They love one another as an act of witness, so people will know that Jesus lives on. Their love becomes God’s glory.” (Sarah S. Scherschligt).

Love is an act of praise.  To our graduates, who have graduated from a school or maybe just from a school of thought, ready to come to God with a new attitude or new opportunity, this is your message and challenge: Love one another.  Make no distinction between people.  Commit to live like the Lord and you will be successful.  You will be made new.  When you find yourself in the valley, find a way to trust.  Find a way to praise.  Find a way to love.  And find a way to commit to the call that God wants you to accept.  When we love in the valley, we admit that we go into the valley often.  We are filled with despair.  We are filled with doubt about our capabilities.  The world tries to stop us from being more like God and from being active, encouraged Christians in the world.  But if you find a way anyway to trust, praise, love, and commit, you will be able to find your way in whatever way you take.  Do not forge your own way.  Take the path that someone has already laid out for us.  Whether you used them or not, they put advisors and professors in our lives during college for a reason.  Most professors actually want to spend their office hours talking to you about your challenges.  Why would God be any different?  Walk boldly through this challenging world, for nothing out there can overpower the goodness and the glory of God.  Nothing can stop you from being faithful to God’s plan if you choose not to let it.  Nothing, that is, if you let God lead you through the valley rather than choosing to walk alone.  May you take this blessing with you in everything you do and everywhere you go.

 “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.”                  ~Proverbs 16:3

When you commit, you are never looking at God through your rearview mirror.  God is your driver.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 11:1-18
11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.
11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,
11:3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,
11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.
11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.
11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’
11:8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’
11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.
11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.
11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;
11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’
11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.
11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
11:17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Psalm 148
148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
148:2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
148:3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
148:6 He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
148:8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
148:9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
148:10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
148:11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
148:12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!
148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
148:14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

John 13:31-35
13:31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.
13:32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
13:33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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