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Today’s Sermon: The Foundation for Prayer

Our nation mourns the awful loss of life in Colorado.  Gun control and gun rights advocates have been arguing since the first news report.  I fear that instead of us becoming serious about prayer as a result of the tragedy, we will pay more attention to the arguing sides and deepen the divide in the nation.

Rays to the Water (©John Gresham)

THE FOUNDATION FOR PRAYER

John 5:13-15

(Thesis) Even a cheap magician relies on knowledge and practice of basic skills and not magic words.

(Antithesis)  Too many of us settle for cheap prayer based on enchanting words and not on a knowledge of God nor discipline in being in his presence.

(Propositional Statement)  For God to hear the petitions of the faithful, we must pray according to God’s will.

(Relevant Question) What is God’s will?

(Points)

  • Commit yourself to Jesus Christ as the Son of God
  • Know that you have the gift of eternal life through this committment
  • Maintain the commitment by continuing in His presence

(Conclusions)

Don’t just pray in the moment.  Make prayer a part of who you are.

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A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Thursday): Ending The Journey (this part of it)

Tomorrow is the Feast of St.s Peter and Paul.  I intend to eat a fair amount of dead animal.  I may wake up early to spend some time on a mountain Saturday.  Sunday, I will attend divine liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church.  This journey of the Apostles Fast is coming to an end.  In all honesty, I am going to miss it.  Oh, I will still maintain and seek to expand my prayer life.  And I will keep the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as be more conscious of my eating on other days.  But, the weeks of fasting have been very interesting and inspiring for me.  God revealed and reminded me of his truth.

Daybreak (© John Gresham)

Prayer means more than giving thanks, praises, and asking for stuff.  Prayer is seeking unity with the Lord.  For those who are new to following Jesus, praying without a disciplined spiritual life can be expected.  But, a shallow perception of communication with God must be outgrown.  The seeking of divine guidance must be perpetual in our hearts and minds.  Too often, we pray for immediate results.  We live in a culture that seeks tangible and well-defined conclusions, and the sooner the better.  This is a very dangerous prayer life.  Suppose we get the results when and the way we want them?  Then arrogance quickly sets in as if we are proven better than others because we have the results.   Complacency is another risk; that one need not pray again unless another need or want arises in our lives.  Suppose we don’t get the results, or get them in a later time in a way that doesn’t please us?  Two possibilities are ready to distort our souls. We may disbelieve in the loving God who answers prayer as we didn’t get our results.  We may also chase after spiritual snake oil salesmen posing as ministers of the Gospel who boast that they can get you the results we are looking for.

A consistent and perpetual seeking of God; this is the type of prayer that doesn’t rely on gratifying results.  When they come, one with such a prayer life remains humble.  When they don’t come, the one remains patient and relies on God’s wisdom.  Results and lack of them are mere stones on the pathway to the eternal.  This is one reason why hermits and monastics can remain in secluded prayer unbothered by the world around them.  This is one reason why the martyrs faced death with a sense of joy and peace in mind.  If we were all thrown to the gladiators and wild beast or were made to live in ascetic cells, having this sort of prayer life would be a bit easier as we would have nothing else to seek after and death would be just moments away.

The challenge for us who are not in monasteries and coliseum is to be consistent and perpetual seekers of God.  This is why the morning and evening Orthodox prayers guide us in seeking mercy.  This is why there are prayers of the Hours and cycles of fasting.  This is why monks, nuns, and other seekers desire an inward prayer of the heart and silently move their lips as they offer up the Jesus Prayer.  The early church fathers gave us traditions of fasting and prayer that have encouraged the rejection of this world and withstood great persecution.  Arrogance, complacency, disbelief, and gullibility await those who have no depth in their spiritual selves.  Thus, our prayers must be continuous to withstand and overcome these adversaries.

Thank you for your time.  I pray God will also bless you in the journey of life.

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Saturday): Did Jesus Have A Liturgy?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you:  do this in remembrance of Me.

Luke 22:19

 

Daylight Despite Clouds (© John Gresham)

Okay, so far in my self-study and practice of Orthodox Christianity, I can see the logic and benefits.  Take the prayer life; using the prayers written in the Orthodox Study Bible and other sources has reignited a sense of my need to pursue God with discipline and diligence.  I was trying to do that on my own with some measure or another of success.  But, following these prayers that have been handed down from the church fathers has been an extra push for me.  Trying to observe the Hours (I am not too sharp at midnight, but I am trying) reminds me of my need for the Holy Spirit through out my day.  Fasting is the best medicine for the body and it does the budget a world of good too moving from a meat to plant-based diet.  I even see the wisdom of iconography.  I refuse to rush into converting as there is no Orthodox Church within a 30 mile radius of my home and I have much to do as a Baptist pastor to seek lost souls, strengthen the saints, and serve my community.

I also confess that divine liturgy intimidates me.  Seriously, all of that chanting, incense, and prayers is far more than we have in our order of service.  And I don’t speak anything other than American English.  Even the Jordanville Prayer Book has words in it that I didn’t learn in seminary.  Shouldn’t worship be simple and easy enough to understand so that a messenger can read it (Habakkuk 2:2)?  Did Jesus have a liturgy?

He probably did.  Think about it, the Last Supper took place not on any old day of the year.  It was on the Day of Unleavened Bread.  Certain scriptures had to be read and prayers prayed by Jews in order to properly celebrate what God did for his people.  More than likely, Jesus followed the prescribed order of worship that was handed down to him since the days of Moses.  But, then Our Lord did something else.  He redefined that meal with his own body and blood.  That we are to come together with the bread and wine in remembrance of him.  The Apostle Paul handed the tradition down to the Corinthian believers and other church fathers did the same as well.  Liturgy can be described as the public spiritual connection to the God of Israel, connected to God the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ, and all who believe in him.

Liturgy is not a spectator sport.  Reading books and watching You Tube videos are not enough.  I will have to attend before I can make any decisions of if I think this is right for me.  I will have a few opportunities to get away from my church and attend the Sunday morning worship in a couple of Orthodox churches between now and mid-September.  I will also attend Homecoming Services among my fellow Baptist.  May God reveal the truth to me.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Monday): Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

A Broad View (© John Gresham)

I am recovering from the Feast of All Saints of North America (overindulgence in a stuffed crust, super supreme pizza).  About to go to a staff meeting at the park ( I am supplying a salad and portabella mushrooms for myself as I am not going to eat any chicken).  And I have more than a few loose ends to tie up this week for the church.  Thus far, I can say that I am happy with my journey on this Apostles Fast.

I am finding so much history in Orthodoxy.  I knew that Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since high school.  But, thanks to modern technology, I have learned even more of this church as well as the Copts of Egypt.  You Tube has become a valuable instrument in my learning of the ancient faith.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and David Withun have very informative videos on the network.  I also listen to the lectures on the Ancient Faith Radio podcast.  I intend to visit either the Greek Orthodox Church or OCA Mission when I go to Charlottesville soon and will be able to visit the Antiochian Church on the fifth Sunday of July.  As soon as the Greek Church opens in Williamsburg, I will attend some midweek services.

Perhaps some would criticize my appreciation for Orthodoxy and wonder why I am asking, seeking, and knocking on their door when I have been a life-long Baptist and pastor a church.  History is one reason.  We African-American Baptist have a rich legacy of preaching, music, and theology that I do appreciate and thank God for.  But, the Baptist faith is only over 200 years old.  Yes, we can talk about the legacy of Robert Walker, Nat Turner, John Jasper, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the message they had for our community and nation.  But, we should also learn and celebrate the legacy and message of the African fathers who contributed to the very foundations of Christianity.  St Anthony the Great is recognized as the father of monasticism by both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  His contemporary, St. Athanasius, described Anthony as being of the Egyptian race.  In speaking of his fellow African, Athanasius put together the New Testament!  Seriously, how can we even call ourselves African-American Christians and not give recognition to the Africans that helped form the faith?  How can we not also celebrate those martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice and the Theban Legion?  Is the oppression and murder they suffered less important than that of King or the four girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bombing?  If we are going to tell the history of our Christian heritage, we ought to tell the whole story.

The Africans who contributed to early Christianity were not former slaves that had to overcome Jim Crow laws to be accepted by whites.  They were held as equals in faith going back to that first named Christian community in Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Race was a non-issue in the early Orthodox world.  Ethiopians have some icons of a pale skinned Jesus out of respect for the Russian Orthodox whom they have enjoyed a long kinship with.  There are churches and monasteries in Europe with icons of the Theotokos and Christ darker than I am.  Most images of Christ and others in the Bible are depicted as Middle Eastern, neither black nor white.  The history of the faith is multicultural and universal (Colossians 3:11).

I have to cut off here.

The Flaw of Faith Alone: (Part one) Lack Of Evidence

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James 2:26

Flight with Two Wings (© John Gresham)

This is the first of 3 sermons I will preach about our need for good works to show that we have faith in God.  My next sermon will come from Matthew 25:31-46 and the final from Acts 2:42-47.  I am grateful for the lectures on “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” from Father Andrew Stephen Damick for inspiring me to preach on this topic.  I pray that I  will correct myself by the grace of the Holy Spirit and lead others to correction as well.

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE:  (PART ONE) LACK OF EVIDENCE

James 2:14-26

(Introduction)  The Protestant Reformation leaders were right in pointing out the abuses of Medieval Catholicism, including the sale of indulgences and stressing works as a means to salvation.

(antithesis) In many of our doctrines, we ignore the point that good works are necessary as they are evidence that we have faith in Jesus Christ.  As a result of our lack of this sound evidence, we run around looking for false ones.

(thesis) We must commit ourselves to good works as well as having our faith secured by believing in the Gospel.

(relevant question)  Why are good works important?

(points)

  • evidence of compassion (vv. 15-17)
  • evidence of distinction (vv. 18-20)
  • evidence of awareness of God’s will (vv.21-26)

(conclusion)

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Tuesday): What?

… “Follow Me.”

Matthew 9:9

 

Flight of Three (© John Gresham)

 

Not a glaring and loud advertisement for a life changing mega church conference.  Not a boastful and vainglorious promotion of an empowering series of DVD lessons for $59.99 plus tax.  No appeal to sow a sacrificial seed offering by popular power preachers to keep the television ministries reaching people all over the world who may not be able to receive such programing in the first place.  Jesus approaches a sinful man in his sinful practice who is friends with sinners with two simple words, “Follow Me.”

To follow is to walk away from where one is and make deliberate steps behind the one accepted as ahead.  As long as the leader is in motion, the follower must also move.  Every day the world turns, plants cycle the air, creatures follow instinctive patters.  Every day the one who was with and was God moves.  We should be likewise place our steps behind his.

Note that his steps are not sporadic.  There may be moments of significance.  But, he walks in consistency as life is consistent.  Our walk must not be limited to unique pauses nor can it be built on infrequent commemorations.  For if we follow only on those moments, what is there to prevent us from losing sight of the leader?  We are most likely to lose sight of who he truly is and where he is going.  Conditions can distort our vision and enemies can distract us if our footsteps are too far away from his.

No, we must have the discipline to follow and follow closely.  Even if we lack the nerve to see him nailed or the hope to see him at the rising moment, even if we don’t get an early glimpse of his glory; we are called to follow.  If we are diligent and obedient, we will be blessed in the here and here after.

Holy Ghost Headquarters

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

Acts 2:1

I remember in college how charismatic Christians took on an air of superiority toward others because they “spoke in tongues” as evidence that they had the Holy Spirit.  I knew that I was baptized according to the formula written in Matthew 28:19, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and that I was “Born Again” (John 3:3) in high school as I came to know Jesus for myself.  I pray that this Pentecost (Western Christians observed it last week) we will understand how we come to receive the Spirit of God and not focus so much on our doctrinal rituals and manifestations.

 

Beauty of New Life

HOLY GHOST HEADQUARTERS

Acts 2:1

(Introduction) We tend to describe some churches as “Holy Ghost headquarters” because of their energetic style of worship

(Antithesis) If Paul is right about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19), style of worship has nothing to do with whether or not the Spirit of God is with us

(Thesis) To receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we must be prepared in our practice of faith

(Relevant Question) How do we prepare to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit

(Points)

  • Obedience The disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them (Acts 1:4)
  • Patience They stayed there for 50 days after Passover (Leviticus 23:16, Acts 2:1)
  • Unity They were all together in place and purpose (Acts 2:1)

(Conclusion) A properly prepared church receives power to persuade others to come into the Kingdom of God.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Consistent Testimony

… Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:36

A Mattaponi Dawn (© John Gresham)

There is something to be said for consistency.  That what is spoken one day is the same as the days before and for days to come.  A true testimony does not change.  But, it remains the same.

One day, the religious leadership approached John the Baptist asking if he were the Christ or one of the prophets.  He denied claims to both.  He quoted the words of Isaiah and pointed that the great Messiah was yet to come with a greater baptism.  But John did not claim any position that was not his, even though he could have claimed the lesser of the two.  John kept to the task of baptism for the remission of sins in humble obedience to God.

The next day, John identified and proclaimed the one he spoke of the day and days before.  “Behold the Lamb of God!”  John was a good man and, rightfully, drew a crowd of the faithful.  But, the Lamb of God was (is) the perfect offering without blemish or spot.  The true first-born.  This Lamb would go down and rise again, thus able to take away the sins of the world.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power that shows he is the Son of God.  As in the day before, John didn’t speak of his greatness.  He bore witness to something greater.

And still the next day, John makes the same proclamation as he sees Jesus.  John has two of his disciples standing with him and made no gesture nor spoke in protest as they left him to follow the One he spoke of.  The baptizer has seen the one who offers the greater baptism.  The precursor has laid down the path as prophesied.  With the Lamb present, John understood that he his position had to decrease.  There was no point of his disciples following him any longer as there was a greater one for them to follow.

A false witness changes as it sees opportunity for gain, the need to conceal inconvenient truth, and threats to its status.  The true witness always points to something greater.  Gain and status are temporal.  Truth is never stopped.  It is best to understand our role in God’s will and let him have his way.  Our consistent testimony let’s him work through us for his glory.

Amen