Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"You have touched me, and I have burned"

Message preached April 14, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Acts 2:37-42

Order of Worship

            He was a very intelligent young man. I say "young." Really, he was in his early 30's, which to this preacher still seems young. Some of you may disagree. He had been raised in a good family. His parents knew well the value of a good education, and encouraged him as he developed his mind to the fullest of its capabilities. Of course, as in many families, there were certain disagreements. One major difference between his mother and father was the matter of faith. She was a Christian. He was not. Even so, together they made a home where a boy could grow in good soil to become a man. And that he did.

            Over the years his mother had made sure he heard about her beliefs. Over and over again she told him the story of Jesus - how this Son of God came to earth as a baby; how, as a man, Jesus lived with, and taught, and healed the people; how, when Jesus was in his early 30's, he was killed at the prime of his life. This mother told her son again and again about how Jesus willingly gave his life for those who killed him, as well as for all people, then and now. And she told him about how the grave could not hold Jesus; how after three days Christ rose from the dead that all might have eternal life.

            Yes, this mother made certain that her son heard the story of Jesus over and over. And she prayed for him every day, that one day he might accept the truth. He was, as I said, a very intelligent young man, raised in a good family that valued education, nurtured by a believing mother who cared enough to share her faith with and pray for her son. Even so, this young man, now himself in his 30's, did his share of wandering through various questionable fields.

            In his teens, he had found himself basically bored with life. Yes, he devoted his mind to study - he was brilliant, he could understand complex things with relatively little effort. But he was bored. And so, like many of his generation, he turned to other things as well. There was much violence to the entertainment of his day, and it all enthralled him. Likewise, sex and alcohol also held an attraction. Eventually he did settle down with one woman, and they lived together, at least for a while. But still he was restless. He was looking for something, something deeper out of life.

            In his searching he sampled various philosophies and religions. One in particular caught his attention, a sort of mixture of various religions. But it didn't really satisfy his deeper yearnings, and he was finally turned off by one of its leading teachers who proved to be shallow and self serving. So, he continued his sampling. For a while he even was attracted to astrology. To make ends meet, he became a teacher. But restlessness led him from one teaching position to another.

            Then one day he came to know a minister who lived what he preached. This young man started going to church again, to listen to what this minister had to say. The sermons made sense to him, they helped pull together some of the stuff his mother used to tell him about God and Jesus. He had a harder time making sense of how he ought to live. He could not imagine giving up a way of life he had grown used to. Sometimes he prayed, "Make me pure ... but not yet."

            Gradually, more and more solid, dedicated Christians were crossing his path and influencing his life through what they said or how they lived. One day, when he was 32 years old, a friend of his stopped to visit. The casual conversation turned serious when this friend noticed a "Bible" (really a volume of Paulís epistles) in the house and began to share about how he had become a Christian. Itís strange how things work out, how certain people seem to be in the right place at the right time. Well, for some reason what this friend had to say was appropriate for the moment.

            After the visitor was gone, this intelligent, young teacher was led into some deep soul searching. He went off by himself into his garden (a good place to do some thinking). It was there that he overheard a young child in the next yard speaking to another as part of some game. Again, how strange it is the way things work out, how certain people seem to be in the right place at the right time. He heard that child say, "Take up and read; Take up and read." It seemed as if God was speaking directly to him through that child. So he answering by "taking up" his Bible, "and reading."

            And for once the words hit this young man right where he needed to be hit. The few verses he read just then spoke to him in a way no one, let alone him, could have predicted. As he wrote of this transforming moment at a later time: "Instantly, in truth, at the end of this sentence, as if before a peaceful light streaming into my heart, all the dark shadows of doubt fled away." As strange as it may sound that moment marked the beginning of a new life for this young man. His was a specific experience of conversion to Jesus Christ, a radical turning to God who had been moving in this manís life since the first day he was held in his motherís arms.

            Itís funny how things turn out. This young manís story would be memorable even if he hadnít gone on to other endeavors. But he did. And the church of Jesus Christ would have been much the poorer had he not turned toward God that day. You see, this young manís name was Augustine (see also Catholic Encyclopedia bio). He became perhaps the greatest leader of the early Christian church. Back in seminary I plodded through one of his monumental books (The City of God - or see selections from it), which wasnít half as interesting as the story of his life - a life that 1600 years later still has a contemporary feel to it. God works in mysterious ways in a personís life.

       (To read more on Augustine's conversion in his own words, see book 8 of his Confessions - the "take up and read" episode is found in book 8, chapter 12.29)

            Now, not everyone experiences exactly the same touch of God. Some know a moment in which their life has been transformed by God. Such was the case with Augustine. But not everyone experiences such a dramatic turning point. Some of us know a more gradual, but no less real, conversion. Other stories could be told of individuals who experienced God working in their lives in ways different from Augustine. It is not ours to decide how God will be at work in us, whether we experience a radical turning, or a more gradual movement. It is ours to decide what we shall do in response to Godís work in us.

            We have heard, again this year, the great story of Easter. Itís a story we tell over and over again. Itís a story about how God came to us as "one of us" - vulnerable, with our weaknesses, tempted just like the rest of us. Itís a story about how, as a man, God-in-Jesus lived, and taught, and healed. Spreading in words and in action the good news of Godís coming Kingdom. Itís a story about how he was killed by the people he came to save. But his dying was not in vain, because he willingly gave his life for those who killed him, as well as for all people, then and now. Itís a story about how a grave could not hold him; about how he rose from death, and in so doing took away the power death has in peopleís lives; about how he rose that all might have everlasting, abundant life. And itís a story that keeps going on and on, even as it is retold, over and over. For Christ didnít just go up to heaven, then, and leave us to fend for ourselves. God / Christ is present with us still in his Holy Spirit, moving among us like a breath of fresh air, empowering us to step out in faith and continue the story, a story of which we are a part, even 2,000 years later.

            Yes, we have heard, again this year, the great story of Easter. The first time this story was told, it was spoken by Simon Peter, the disciple. He made a rather lengthy sermon out of it. But when he was done telling the whole story for the very first time, those who listened asked this question: "What shall we do now?" Thatís the question which should be asked every time we hear again the story of Easter. "What shall we do now?" Itís an important question. And itís not just their question, those who first listened to Peter. We find it recorded in our New Testament because it was intended to be our question as well. "What shall we do now?"

            Peterís answer to this question was not intended as a formula for us to follow, but as a spark to ignite us. "Repent," that is, turn toward God, again and again and again. Whether this turning, this conversion happens in a radical sort of way, or gradually over time, doesn't matter. What matters is that we turn, that we repent, over and over again. For we cannot truly receive anything from God if we are faced in the opposite direction. Remember that old Shaker tune?

"Tis a gift to be simple tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twil be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shant be ashamed,
to turn, turn 'twil be our delight, til by turning, turning we come round right."
(listen to "Tis a gift to be simple")

            What matters is that we turn, that we repent, over and over again. For we cannot truly receive anything from God if we are faced in the opposite direction. Baptism is for us a new beginning to a lifetime of turning, turning toward God, turning toward one another as Godís children; turning away from that which gets in the way of our relationship with God and with each other, turning away from what is least important to what is most important. Baptism is for us a beginning to a lifetime of turning. And whenever we hear once again the great Easter story, the question arises, "What shall we do now?" And the answer rings out, "Repent, and receive. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord calls to him."

* * * * * * *

            St. Augustine, whose story I told earlier, wrote an autobiography of sorts, all of it in the form of a prayer, entitled The Confessions of Augustine. In it we find these words: "Too late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! Behold, you were within me while I was outside: it was there that I sought you, and rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all. You have called to me and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light ... and have put my blindness to flight... I have tasted you and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace."   (book 10, chapter 27)

* * * * * * * *

            Perhaps some of you today have asked that question for the first time, "What shall I do now?" Perhaps you have heard within you, in a very real way, the answer - as if for the first time: "repent," turn toward God, and receive. Know that the ability to turn, to repent, is not a condition for you to receive. Repentance, turning toward God is itself a gift from God, a grace. We cannot turn, except for Christ turning in us first. For God, no doubt, has been at work in you all along. As Augustine said, "You were within me while I was outside ... You were with me, but I was not with you ... You have called to me ... and ... shattered my deafness ...You have touched me, and I have burned..." Perhaps you have felt that touch, the gentle nudging of the Spirit. If so, Iíd encourage you to respond to Godís leading. If any place is appropriate to make a first step of faith, a turning toward God, it is here among these people. Please feel welcome to come forward as we sing our final hymn. "Out of my bondage"


©2002, 1990 Peter L. Haynes

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