Sermon: The Journey Of Faith: The Bridge from Nowhere to Everywhere
Scripture: Acts 16: 6-10
Date: September 23, 2018
Last week in talking about the Journey of Faith and where it takes us, I talked about how Paul, once he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road and subsequently decided that from that point on he would follow the Spirit of the Risen Lord wherever He led. Now here’s the thing we need to understand. Every Christian, every Disciple or follower of Christ has their own Damascus Road experience. Now it may not be as dramatic as Paul’s experience was. But from that moment on Paul went everywhere and shared his testimony with whoever would listen and many who didn’t want to listen. And he always began with his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. So all of us, who claim to be His disciples, have that moment when we first encountered Jesus, when our journey of faith began, and the moment we return to whenever we hear the call of Jesus all over again. Because the endings that we experience along the way are really just the beginning of the next mile in our journey with Christ. Faith is not linear in nature. It does not go from one point to another. No it is more circular and for the growing disciple it unfolds in ever expanding circles until that which begins nowhere, eventually encompasses everywhere. And we move from death to life. A cross to an empty tomb. Finite to infinite. From nowhere to everywhere. When Christ calls us, he does not call us to a specific place or destination, but rather he calls us to live life the way He lived it. Follow me, is His call. Remember when He was getting ready to ascend back into Heaven, to the place where His time on earth had begun, He told the Disciples to not just limit their Faith journey to the places they knew like Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but rather go to the ends of the earth. To unknown places and unknown people. He challenged them to a faith journey without bounds, no limits. Instead go beyond that which you know, beyond your wildest imaginations. When the Spirit called Paul and Timothy to leave the familiar paths and journey to Macedonia, that was like going to the ends of the earth to Paul. He had never been to Macedonia and probably did not know any one who had been. But He followed Jesus there. If Jesus would have limited the faith journey to just the destinations that he could reach on foot, in the short period of time that He had on earth, His Gospel would not have gone very far and certainly not influenced the whole world as it has for the last 2000 years. Instead He transformed the Faith Journey into a journey of the heart and the mind. And He called Disciples to follow. He did not have a certain destination in mind. Instead He called them to follow Him into a new life. Most of them were really from nowhere in the eyes of the Jews. Many in Jerusalem and Judea viewed Galilee as essentially nowhere. The beginnings of a vast wilderness. A land that was just waking up from centuries of destruction and barrenness at the hands of pagan armies. When Jesus was born, Nazareth was barely 100 years old. Contrast that with Jerusalem that was about 3500 years old when Jesus was born. When the people of Jerusalem spoke of Nazareth, they would often joke about it being in the middle of Nowhere. So when Jesus called the first Disciples, He was calling them to follow Him on a journey from Nowhere to Everywhere. And that’s the call He places on our life. If we are to truly take the Gospel to the ends of the earth we can not limit our faith journey to that which we know and have already experienced, but rather He is calling on us to risk the unknown, even if that takes us the ends of the earth.
So the question that I have wrestled with since I first heard God’s call in my life has been, if not to a physical destination, where exactly is Christ calling me to follow when He said on my Damascus Road, “Come and Follow Me?” What kind of Journey is He calling me to?
First, I believe He is calling us to a place of Unconditional Love. And friends, that is often a very risky place to follow Him to. A hard journey to make. Especially in our world today where more and more we seem to put people into one of two camps. One for those we love and one for those we hate. Quite frankly, even though I grew up in the turbulence of the 1960’s, I don’t think I have ever felt like we are being consumed by hatred as a society as much as I have recently. We are slowly taking the civil out of civilization. We are suffering from an epidemic of hatred. Based on where we come from, or the color of our skin, or our sexual orientation, or whether we are Democrats or Republicans, sinners or saints, conservative or liberal, male or female, and on and on the list goes. We are constantly at odds with one another. Friends we can disagree with each other without hate in our hearts. But instead of finding reasons to love one another, we go out of our way to find reasons to hate each other. But it is really not anything new. Perhaps it’s the frequency and intensity that makes it feel differently. Or the fact that it’s in the news every night. But Christ was born into a world that was also suffering from an epidemic of hate. When we follow Christ, He takes us on journey towards a place of unconditional love. A place where He calls on us all to “love our enemies” and those “who hate us.” But that’s a risky place to go, isn’t it? Ironically, for Christ that place of unconditional love reached it’s ultimate expression on the cross of Calvary, where he transformed the hatred of so many into love without condition. When we follow Jesus to the Cross, we need to put aside our fears and our prejudices, our hatred, and love everybody without placing conditions on them. Because that’s what Christ did for us. He replaced our guilt and hatred with unlimited grace and forgiveness and unconditional love. Calvary is the place on our journey where we don’t love just because people look like us and think like us and act like us and live like us. We love everyone no matter who they are or what they look like or even what they’ve done to us. That is unconditional love. Follow me there, Jesus calls. Dr. Martin Luther King heard that call and lived his life in the shadow of the cross. On January 30, 1956, right near the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King came home from a meeting to find his home had been bombed while his wife and children were inside. Immediately crowds full of angry people began to build up in their front yard. Dr. King feared that they would spark a riot. And so after tending to his family, who were unharmed in the blast, Dr. King came out to address the crowd. This is what he said: “We are not advocating violence. We must love our enemies. What we are doing is just and God will be with us.” That’s unconditional love.
But Jesus has more than the love of our neighbors and enemies in mind when he calls us to love unconditionally. We must also love God unconditionally. Now that may sound strange – of course we love God without condition. But I’m not sure about that. Sometimes I make my love for God conditional on how He answers my prayers, or doesn’t answer my prayers. And so when I pray for healing and no earthly healing comes, I start to question my love for God, and His love for me. Or when we’re not spared from the storm, or a loved one dies we sometimes start to question our love for God and His love for us. I suspect that there are folks in the Carolinas this morning, who are questioning the unconditional love of God. You see, our love for God is sometimes conditional upon whether or not He acts as we think He should. But Unconditional means we love God regardless of the worldly conditions we find ourselves in. Think of all Jesus endured throughout his life, and yet His love for God never faltered. His love was unconditional.
And then Jesus says we must love ourselves without condition. One day someone approaches Jesus while he is journeying and says: What is the greatest commandment Jesus? And Jesus replies: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You see, we often forget that when Jesus was describing unconditional love, He essentially said that before we can love others unconditionally, we must first love ourselves unconditionally. And I don’t know about you, but I often find it harder to love myself then I do to love others. But if we hate ourselves, then we are most likely to hate others. When we become intent on bringing ourselves down because we don’t measure up to what we think we ought to be, when we struggle to forgive ourselves for the things we have done or allow God through His unlimited grace to forgive us because we don’t think we’re worthy then truthfully we don’t really want anyone else to reach that place of unconditional love either. But unconditional love is just that. It is not rooted in perfection. Neither does it imply that we will need to live and think and act perfectly before we can be worthy. It is love no matter what may be going on in our life, or the life of others.
I think unconditional love is perhaps expressed best in our marriage vows when we promise to love one another for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health because you see it presupposes that life together will have it’s share of difficulties, but through it all, there is love.
Listen again to the words that the Apostle Paul uses to describe unconditional love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, or boast. It is not proud, or rude, or self seeking. There is no anger in love. It doesn’t keep track of the wrongs that we commit or are committed towards us. It does not delight in evil, but finds great joy in the truth. It always protects us, always trusts, always hopes, always lasts – no matter what may happen. Love never fails. That’s unconditional love. When we follow Jesus, our journey eventually leads to a place of unconditional love for our neighbors, for God and for ourselves. Because unconditional love takes us to the ends of the earth. And it begins and ends with the call of Jesus on our life. He spent most of His earthly life loving unconditionally those the world considered unloveable. He meets us on the road and says, Follow me.
And then secondly, when we follow the Spirit, we journey to a place of unconquerable hope. I call it unconquerable hope because there is a lot that we encounter in this world today that tries to rob us of our hope, destroy our hope. Those of you who have had the pleasure of visiting Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia which was the birthplace of the American Revolution, have hopefully also taken time to visit the nearby campus of William and Mary College. Founded in 1693, it is the second oldest College or University in the United States and for a century and a half was a leader among American universities. Then came the Civil War. And in the hard days of Reconstruction which followed, William and Mary went bankrupt and ceased operations. The campus was deserted, the buildings began to deteriorate, and, of course, there were no students. The school was written off as dead by everyone. Another casualty of the Civil War. Everyone, except its president, Benjamin Ewell. He refused to give up hope. So, every morning, President Ewell went to the deserted campus, climbed the bell tower of its main building, and rang the bells, calling the school to opening chapel. He acted as if the school was still there. People thought he was crazy. But for seven years, every day, President Ewell rang the bells at William and Mary, in defiance of the despair and hopelessness that had destroyed so much of what he held valuable in life. And eventually, miraculously, it worked. Others caught his vision and began to join him in the Chapel for prayer. And eventually students, teachers, and money returned. It was the hope of Benjamin Ewell that could not be conquered that kept William and Mary College alive and it’s now in it’s fourth century of service. Our Faith journey leads us to a place of unconquerable hope. There is great power in hope. Those who have been prisoners of war talk about hope as that which kept them alive through that terrible ordeal, and holocaust survivors talk a lot about surviving when others did not because they never lost hope. The Apostle Paul talked a lot about hope, possibly because his faith journey led him to many places that the world would consider to be hopeless. He equated hope with faith and love. To the Romans, Paul wrote this: We rejoice in the hope of God. And because of that we should rejoice even in our sufferings, because we know in Christ suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope never disappoints us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through His Holy Spirit. Because, you see, just at the right time, when we were feeling hopeless, Christ died for us. So if we were reconciled to Him through his death, we have the hope of salvation because of His life. When we follow Jesus, He leads us in our journey to a place of hope.
You see, in this journey of faith we often come upon great chasms that we can not cross on our own. David calls them the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We all come upon them from time to time. And we are tempted to stop our journey right there, to look for ways other than Jesus to get to the other side. But God sent Jesus to be the bridge over the great divides in our life, between that place where we are and the place that God is calling us to go, and it is through His love and grace that Jesus bridges that gap. Between hate and love. Despair and hope. Even death and life. Because on the cross Jesus stretched His life between the chasm that divided the world from God since the moment that Adam and Eve munched down on that forbidden fruit. He is the bridge across every divide, every valley that we come to. Because, and if you don’t hear any else I say, hear this. Jesus will not call us to follow Him on a journey where ultimately we can’t go. Think you’ve come to the end of the road. Nowhere to go. Jesus says follow me everywhere. To the ends of the earth.
Thirty years ago a Ferry Boat capsized in the stormy waters of the English Channel and though the boat was just six feet from the dock and safety – over 190 people died in the icy waters of the channel that day. Because when the boat capsized it tore away the gang plank between the boat and the shore. And the only way to get to shore was to plunge into waters that were so turbulent and frigid that few could survive even so short a journey. And so seeing what was happening a passenger by the name of Andrew Parker, who was 6’3” tall, just enough to stretch his body across the void between the capsized boat and dock to form a human bridge and 22 passengers were able to run to safety. In writing a song inspired in part by that the writer wrote in the refrain this line: “There’s a bridge to cross the great divide.” The line was supposed to be repeated two times but in finishing the song and recording it the words bridge and cross were transposed the second time and so the line became: “There’s a cross to bridge the great divide.” And so it is with our journey of faith. You see often times on our faith journey we come to great divides. Places where we struggle to experience God’s love. Where hope becomes hopelessness. And we just don’t see how we can go on. Times when the Spirit is leading us into unknown, uncertain and scary places. Where we sometimes feel as we are descending into nothingness. Going nowhere. And the valleys of death sometimes loom large. And just when the valleys seem too deep, the divide too wide, Jesus stretches out his body and becomes the bridge between this world and the heavenly realms, between nowhere and everywhere, and invites us to continue to follow Him to the ends of the earth and beyond. “Greater love,” He says, “has no one than those who are willing to lay down their life for another.” Follow me.