"Why Skills of Spirit Matter"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – March 27, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 130; Romans 8:18-25


     This morning we are going to consider a topic about which we human beings know very little.  We are going to examine the hope of eternal life that our faith provides.  What happens to us when we die?  However we experience that moment, please understand that our beliefs about the process will not influence what happens to us when we transition from our solid forms into what can only be characterized as spiritual energy.  We will become spirit-beings (I Corinthians 15:44) 

     As we approach Easter, it is appropriate that we consider the basis for holding on to our hope.   In our lesson today, Paul is very descriptive about the suffering in his present world. He wrote:

     All of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth.  But, it is not just creation alone that groans; we who have the Spirit also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free.

     This description reads as though Paul had been watching our evening news.  From the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the political upheavals in the Middle East to the floods in Australia, the world is indeed groaning with pain.  These issues are only the tip of the iceberg. When we distill our experiences down to each individual, we are like a mini-world filled with values and opinions that sometimes differ widely from those held by others.

     I say this because everyone has a distinct point of view about nearly everything.  Many of us discuss matters as though we are in possession of a vast amount of accurate information when, in fact, we are not.  Sometimes all we bring to a discussion about issues that bother us are responses filled with emotionally charged opinions. 

     Different points of view are responsible for there being Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, United Church of Christ, etc.  We can add to these denominations thousands of independent churches advertising that they have a corner on the truth with such names like, The Whole Truth Bible Church. 

     Non-believers can look at the Body of Christ and say, “Why should we subscribe to anything you teach when the message you preach does not appear to be working in your own lives?  How do you explain such diversity in your theology?”  They are correct!  The answer, of course, is that theological points of view are all over the landscape.  This is why Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)  Everyone has his or her own version.

     Consider, for example, testimonies from faithful Christians.  Many of them offer little understanding about what we will experience when we transition from this world because they are deeply influenced by the images like the separation of the sheep and the goats, a division that has more to do about judgment than anything else. For that matter, why are the goats the bad guys?  Fortunately, God is far more loving and patient toward us than many believers are prepared to admit.

     Paul goes on to write:  “Our hope has saved us from being defined by the material world, but if we see that for which we hope, then what we know is not really hope.  If, however, we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  What do we personally believe about our eternal inheritance? 

     A year ago, there was a program on the History Channel that featured interviews with key leaders of every major religion in the world.  All of the spokespersons were of the stature of the Dalai Lama, who was among those that were interviewed.  They were asked one question, “What is your understanding of heaven?”   

     It was interesting to hear their responses.   Every one of them described heaven in physical terms, e.g., rolling hills, magnificent snow-capped mountain peaks, blue skies, fresh water, crystal clear lakes.  “It will be a place,” they said, “where lions will lie down with the lambs.”

     Each of these leaders has a mystical side.  I know this because I have read their books. None of them, however, was willing to express their more honest points of view in front of the cameras.  Any abstract answers might have disturbed the faithful in their flocks that want to picture heaven as a beautiful environment filled with familiar symbols. 

     Even the writers of the Book of Revelation defined The New Jerusalem in materialistic terms, “The wall was made of jasper and the city itself was made of pure gold, as clear as glass. The foundation stones of the city’s wall were adorned with all kinds of precious stones, e.g. jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, quartz, topaz, turquoise, amethyst and pearls. Even the streets were paved with pure gold.  (Revelation 21:18f)  

     When we try to move beyond such familiar descriptions we are at a loss to explain what else heaven would be like.  The Scriptures, however, do suggest some hints that should inspire our imaginations.

     For example, the Apostle Paul knew a man who had an out-of-the-body experience.  Paul wrote, “I know a certain Christian man that transcended to the highest heaven, and, while in Paradise, he heard things that he could not put into words.  He experienced things for which there were no words.”  (II Corinthians 12:2f).     

     Jesus told his listeners how different afterlife will be.  While talking to Lawyers he said, “You do not know the Scriptures, nor do you know anything about God’s power.  When the dead are raised to life, they will be like the angels in heaven and they will not marry.” (Mark 12:24-25)  “God is the God of the living, not the dead, for to God all are alive.  One of the teachers of the Law spoke up, ‘Rabbi, you have given us a good answer.’” (Luke 20:38f). 

     On another occasion Jesus told his disciples, “I have so much more that I wish I could tell you, but right now it would be too difficult for you to understand. (John 16:12)  Just knowing that there is much more, gives us hope.

     As we consider these issues, what is the basis for our hope?   Paul wrote, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”   What are some of these invisible things we can look forward to with patience until we depart from all that we know?   

     An interesting thing that happens to us when we leave this world is that all our sins stay right here in the material world.  The word “sin” is an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” The Church has always labeled our sins as “evil” and offensive to God. 

     We need to remember that God created us with the capacity to fall in love with what tantalizes us in the world.  If we did not have those alluring qualities to test us, we could not choose qualities like patience over anger, honesty over deception, sincerity and authenticity over hypocrisy.   Let us consider some of these qualities that we leave behind. 

     When we transition from our physical forms, vanity will be gone. Think of it.  No more creams to remove wrinkles.  No more programs that guarantee that our bodies can once again look like twenty year-olds.  No more shampoos to make our hair silky smooth.  No more bottles of medication for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.  No more mirrors.   No more need to have pure white teeth like the ones we see advertised on television. 

     Envy will be gone.  It is a comfort to read where Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”  The word mansions, however, was wishful thinking on the part of 2nd century scribe. A more accurate translation would be, “Where my Father dwells, there are many rooms, many environments, or many levels of awareness.”  What Jesus was promising was not about the quality of our potential habitat; it was about God safely providing for each of us.  Love does that even for those of us who believe we have missed the mark by miles.  

     Gossiping will be gone.  Try to imagine a time when we cannot hide any thought that we have about anything.  Jesus taught, “Do not be afraid of people.  A day is coming when what is now covered up will be uncovered and every secret will be made known.  Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in broad daylight, and whatever you have whispered in private in a closed room will be shouted from the housetops.”  (Luke 12:2f)  Some of us may have some homework to do.  

     In other words, after we leave our physical bodies, we will not be able to hide who we are from ourselves, from the universe of other spirit-beings or from God.  This is why skills of spirit matter. We could go through every major activity that we characterize as sinful and absolutely none of them have any applicability in the world of spirit. 

     Why is this so?  Every one of them has a linkage to engaging in some activity in our physical world, a world that will not exist after we leave our bodies.  There will be no cars to steal, no one to seduce, no banks to rob, no hoarding our investments in commodities such as gold or silver, no cosmetic surgery to look younger, and no academic degrees to open doors to greater opportunities.  Such temptations will not be available. 

     Being “born again” means that we need to re-evaluate how we navigate in this life.  Skills of spirit are critical acquisitions that will serve our growth toward our purpose for being here. Each of our lives will become exactly what our choices have created.  The only thing we know for sure is that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  (Romans 8:38f)  The path to becoming a spirit-being in today’s world is found by continuing to purify the forms of love that we express.  

     This was a method that Jesus used.  For example, we all know the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple by becoming violent.  What is seldom discussed is what happened next.  Jesus left the city. (Mark 11:19)  There is no doubt in my mind that he was disappointed in himself and that he went into the hills to consider what he had just done. Did Jesus want to teach his followers that, when their world is not the way they want it, violence is an acceptable response?  

     Those vendors were back on the Temple grounds the very next day because they were engaging in a business that had gone on for 80 years.  There is no mention of Jesus ever doing such a thing again. Jesus continued to purify how he expressed love, even when confronted by those who were violently opposed to him.  He learned and showed us a better way.  What was that better way?  We need to purify constantly the clarity of the love we express.

     There is an ancient story that had its origin in Russia.  The story line featured a temple filled with everything that would fill the heart of a child with joy.  One day a young girl approached the temple and found it guarded by the keeper of the key.  When she went to enter the temple, she was denied.  She was told that only worthy children could enter.

     She left and found an elderly woman who was struggling to unload produce she had purchased at the market.  She carried the produce into her home.  The woman was profoundly gratefully to the child and offered to pay her for helping.  She said, “I only wanted to help” and went on her way.  In spite of this good deed, she was denied entrance by the keeper of the key.

     Next she found a beggar who was starving.  She gathered money she had collected from being helpful in her community.  She returned to the poor beggar with her money and food. When she was denied entrance again she thought, “This temple is impossible to enter.  How does anyone become worthy? She left thinking that she would never try to enter again.

     As she was walking home, she heard yelping from an animal coming from a thicket.  There was a small dog caught in a hunter’s trap.  The poor dog was exhausted from struggling to free itself.  She knelt down, pried open the trap with her hands, bandaged his leg and paw with material she tore from her petticoat and began to carry the dog to her home.  Suddenly, the keeper of the key appeared.  He said, “Here is the key, my dear.  What you have done for this animal came from the purity of love.  You did not help this creature for any reward you might receive. You may enter the temple any time you wish.  You have learned a valuable lesson – love only for the sake of loving.”

     Constantly purifying the way we express our compassion in a world that is groaning with pain will bring clarity to the spirit God created us to have and to give away.  As we become an angel in the flesh, trusting God to attend to the details, this will give us the hope that we can get from here to the place where God and an entire universe of spirit-beings dwell.  This week, keep this hope alive and well within you.