Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

John 17:24

What helps us warm up to people?  When I first meet a child, for example, they have never seen me before.  Why should they trust me?  Why should they open up to me?  If I want to establish a relationship with them, I recognize that we both need to do a little work.  I need to first show that I care for them by getting down on their level, smiling, showing kindness, and listening to them.  Depending on their age, I might show that I care about engaging with their toys or hearing what is on their mind.  In the same way, they also need to be open to meeting new people and learning to trust them if they give them the time of day and show them that they genuinely care about them.  This is done through positive traits that all amount to tender loving care.  Sometimes it takes a few encounters before a deep level of trust is formed.

I met Braelyn at the wedding rehearsal last Friday.  We did not talk much then save for exchanging names.  Then on Saturday after the ceremony, he and the other children got it in their head that it was hot enough that they wanted to take all the fans out of the pews and be kind enough to fan other people.  Soon enough, the only people that were in the sanctuary were the kids, people who were shuffling in and out of picture taking, and myself.  So they decided to fan me and I was able to engage with them.  Just because I was open to meeting them in what they wanted to do, I was able to begin forming a relationship.  I am not sure if I will ever see him and the others again, but I am thankful that it happened.

My parents came back to Ohio this weekend.  It was not the original plan.  It started when a random stray cat was spotted on the west steps of the church the week following Easter Sunday (April 22nd).  The cat obviously had not been fed in a while.  They could tell the story better because they were there, but the short story is that they put some food out on the walk for her to eat.  She may have hesitated in letting them approach her, but she definitely wanted the food.  She had not seen the loving care from humans in this way at least for a while, and she was not quite sure what to make of it.  But now, she has been in a shelter for a month, and she has been warming up to people because she has seen the love that good people can give her.  Now, she is ready to become a house cat.  What she needed was consistent tender loving care.

During the season of Easter, which concludes this week, we have walked with the disciples in their doubt and fear that they experienced between the death of Jesus, then the Resurrection, and a growing cautious hope despite the enemies of the gospel outside the doors.  We have examined how their doubt makes sense, how it was crucial that they stuck together to guide one another through it, and last week we began talking about the promise that Jesus had given them of an Advocate to remind them of the teachings and how they were to live.  Throughout this season, and all seasons, we can ask ourselves one question: How can a person grow toward God during their lifetime on earth?  The earth is filled with reasons to doubt God.  We have reviewed these in this series as well.  The world wants us to doubt God just as much or more so than it wanted to the disciples to be challenged and to give up in their faith.  But we can hold onto consolation, just as the first disciples did, by knowing that Jesus never did leave them.  An Advocate was coming.  And by now, it is already here.  This is what children seek too; they want support.  They want someone who will actually show that they will listen to them.  And in the same way, a lonely and hungry animal wants to find someone who will love them and care for them.  I remember a scout who told me a story that no one else had believed.  He was convinced that there were ghosts in his house.  Whether or not you believe in ghosts or not, it does not matter.  What this scout needed to hear was that someone would listen to his perspective and not try to disprove it immediately.  He just needed his opinion to feel valued.

There is reason to praise God through the storm when we find someone who values us.  Therefore, on our last Sunday of learning how to move through the doubt that often blinds us, our focus is two-fold.  First, we need to recognize that God values us.  God values enough to send us the Advocate that Jesus promised (John 14:26).  God loves us enough to help us understand this Advocate, as long as we are open to learning.  As Matthew wrote in his gospel, “Don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matt. 10:31).  God also prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies so that we can coexist in the world and fulfill our mission to it, yet also live outside of it (Psalm 23:5).  If you have trouble believing that God values you, we could dive into about a hundred more scripture passages.  So first, recognize that God values you enough not to leave you alone in your struggles.  Second, we need to help others through their storms by proving to them that others care about them.  Listen to their story.  Don’t try to immediately prove them wrong or tell them that it is their fault, even if they are or if it is.  You have the chance to be different than the rest.  Who knows?  You may be the only Jesus that they will see.

In John 20:21, we read the words of Jesus: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  We remember from last week where we are sent – both into the trying world and into God’s embrace; this week we focus on the why.  We are sent because we are to make a difference in combating the doubt that others have in the faith that we hold so dear.  We are to show others that the world can in fact be different.  There are a couple points that we can take with us today as we focus in on this goal.

First, Jesus told us to tend his sheep (John 21:17).  Our love for God and for Jesus is demonstrated by the ways we treat others.  It is not demonstrated by how loud we sing on Sundays or by how fervently we pray our unison prayers.  God sees and judges our love and devotion for Him through the ways that we treat other people.  Remember that our whole goal is to combat the difficult world that we live in by showing that there is an alternative to it.  We show that there is in fact someone who provides the tender, loving care that we so deeply require.

Second, reviewing a passage from two weeks ago, John 13:34-35 reminds us, through the words of Jesus, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  The disciples are not determined by how much they pray or how fervently they worship.  They are recognized by their love for one another.  We see how, in the words of Jesus, our actions speak louder than our words.  If we want to try to conquer the issue of declining church membership and increasing cynicism in today’s society, we really have to do it through love.

And third, in Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus tells us about a non-forgiving lender.  After he had been forgiven his entire debt by the king, he still refused to forgive what he was owed by someone else, even though it was a much lesser amount.  When the king found out, his debt was restored to him and he was thrown into prison.  In this parable, God is the king.  When we ask God for mercy, God shows us that He is quite forgiving.  But if we do not in turn forgive our neighbor when they ask for our mercy, God is going to hold us accountable.  In other words, Jesus plainly states that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us.  The debt God forgives us means little if we do not show mercy toward others.  That should bother us.  We cannot love God without loving our neighbor.  If we tell ourselves that we do, we are deceiving ourselves.

Return to this question that we asked earlier: How can a person grow toward God during their lifetime on earth?  A similar and just as important question: How can I grow toward God during my lifetime on earth?  We should always be focused on growing toward God just as a plant grows toward the sunlight.  When I offer tender loving care to a cat, for example, that cat tends to grow closer and closer to me.  If I do not pay much attention to it, the opposite might happen.  Although we may be moving on from our series on doubt within faith, and we will be reading about how the early church had success after success, we know that it never truly goes away either.  We are confronting it every day of our lives.  Even amid the success of the early church, the disciples were still called in for questioning.  There were still people like Saul who fought against them in the early days.  We have that today as well.  If we are to sustain the church, as well as our own faith, we need to build up from our roots.  We need to tell ourselves that it is okay.  And most of all, we need to remain turned toward God.  When we are turned toward God, God’s face will be able to shine upon our faces, and with a little effort on our part, that face will continue to shine into the rest of the world.  Reflecting a little bit of God’s love in the form of tender loving care to our neighbors is a crucial part of our Christian journey.  We extend it to our neighbors, we extend it to the animal family, and we extend it to our own selves.

Next week, we will celebrate the birthday of the church.  We will start a new series focused on prayer alone.  We have already seen how prayer can change things in an instant, as we read Acts 16.  We will touch on that more in the weeks ahead, along with other passages.  For now, our concluding thought is this: When we admit to that which challenges our beliefs, we are uniting ourselves with all the Christians everywhere, and throughout all time.  When we love our neighbors, Christian or non-Christian, we are loving God.  When we follow Jesus, we are opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit who reminds us of the words he taught and of the right way of living.  Jesus’ desire is that they may all be one: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).  United in Christ and in God, we conquer the weapons of this world.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Acts 16:16-34
16:16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.
16:17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
16:18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
16:19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.
16:20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews
16:21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
16:22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
16:23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.
16:24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
16:26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
16:27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.
16:28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
16:29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.
16:30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
16:31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
16:32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
16:33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.
16:34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Psalm 97
97:1 The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!
97:2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
97:3 Fire goes before him, and consumes his adversaries on every side.
97:4 His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.
97:5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.
97:6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory.
97:7 All worshipers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods bow down before him.
97:8 Zion hears and is glad, and the towns of Judah rejoice, because of your judgments, O God.
97:9 For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.
97:10 The LORD loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of his faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
97:11 Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.
97:12 Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!

John 17:20-26
17:20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,
17:21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
17:22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,
17:23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
17:24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
17:25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
17:26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

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