“When Spirit Confronts Orthodoxy

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – April 30, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Romans 8:35-39; Luke 24:13-24


    Two themes crop up in our lesson this morning that are worth considering.  Both themes occurred during the episode when two disciples were walking away from Jerusalem.  As they were walking, Jesus joined them.  The disciples were so engrossed in their conversation that they did not recognize him.

    Jesus asked what the two were discussing.  They responded, "Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there during the last several days?"  Jesus asked, "What things?"  The two answered:

The things that happened to Jesus of Nazareth.  This man was a prophet and was considered by God and many of us to be a breath of fresh air. Our chief priests and rulers, however, handed him over to be sentenced to death and he was crucified.  We had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set our people free.

    The first issue that surfaced was what happened between Jesus, who was a breath of fresh air, and the religious authorities, who organized the charges against him. The second issue that surfaced was the thought that Jesus was not the one who would set his people free.

    It had to be unsettling to these two disciples that their religious leaders were the ones who found Jesus to be a threat and engineered a crucifixion of their teacher that healed others as he preached a message of love and forgiveness.  How could something like this happen?

    How many times has the Church been on the wrong side of truth?  This happens today when Jesus' teachings are being taught by those who are the authorities on what is best for people to believe for their own salvation.

    Sixty Minutes is an investigative news program that prides itself on presenting to the viewing public accurate, well-documented commentary on social issues that would not surface in normal news reporting.

    One of the lead reporters interviewed a number of pastors of mega-churches that had ten to twenty thousand people attending on any given Sunday morning.  What made these pastors newsworthy was that all of them had spiritually outgrown the orthodoxy of their faith and yet they felt compelled to preach what they no longer believed. 

    The staff of Sixty Minutes disguised the pastors and distorted their voices so that no one in the viewing audience could recognize them as they were being interviewed. 

    The pastors had remained silent about the inner struggles because they feared the leadership of their denomination. These pastors felt that they were too close to retirement to risk losing their jobs.  This was the same issue that Jesus faced only he faced it differently.

    The fear of these pastors was real because they were aware of a number of seminary professors that were recently dismissed from their positions because they had incorporated new discoveries of science into their teaching materials, discoveries that refuted the authority of the Scriptures.  These pastors were not free because of their fears.

    The two disciples also said, "We had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set our people free."   While walking with them, still unrecognized, Jesus explain to them that this is exactly what happened. Jesus demonstrated from the cross that he was free from the tyranny of orthodoxy.  The sarcasm and mockery from those standing at the foot of the cross, the nails in his wrists and feet had no effect on his loving spirit.  He was free.

    In Peter's first letter to Christians living in northern Turkey, he described this same issue in this manner:  "We all know that Jesus set us free from the worthless rituals and rules that have been handed down by our ancestors."  (I Peter 1:18)  He knew the kind of freedom that Jesus intended.  Spiritual freedom is very different from political freedom from Rome.

    During his baptismal experience, Jesus became an awakened spirit.  His days as a carpenter ended because of his intense spiritual encounter with God. One of the interesting qualities of an awakened spirit is that a person's connection with God is often unique to that individual. Jesus' new awareness had very little to do with the teachings of the religious leaders of his people.

    An authentic spiritual experience does not give people a holier-than-thou sense of superiority nor does it give them an exclusive right to God. Quite the contrary.  Such an experience is very humbling because it is life-changing. There is no denying a spiritual awakening when we have one.  We own it.  We do not own the second-handed orthodoxy that has been handed down by those in our past.

    One Sunday in a former church, I was greeted at the end of our service with the hug from a woman whose eyes were filled with tears.  She said,

Thank you, Rev. Stetler, for your sermon today.  For the first time in my life, I now understand who Jesus was and what meaning he has for my life.  I never understood any of it until this morning.  I was totally overwhelmed by what happened to me in the sanctuary.

    I thanked her for her comments and for telling me how her life had suddenly changed by a new awareness. Later that Sunday afternoon, I read my sermon again to see what she heard.  The name of Jesus was never mentioned in that sermon.

    Ironically, that message was delivered on Pentecost Sunday. The sermon discussed how God's spirit can mysteriously appear at the oddest times and in the most unlikely forms to cause our spirits to awaken and soar.

    Through the years, I have come to understand that sermons do not communicate the way we pastors think they do.  Pastors cannot govern what it is that people experience.  An idea that may take up residence in a listener's mind is one that has passed through a unique one-of-a-kind set of filters when their mind is not wandering.  Everything else spoken in that sermon enters the graveyard where all never-heard words are buried.

    People do not perceive the same way.  Often people are not ready emotionally or spiritually to receive what is being said.  We do not respond the same way to what is happening in life.  No one is right or wrong in their thinking; they are just different in how they understand and interpret their life-experiences.   

    The two disciples walking with Jesus did not realize that he accomplished what he set out to do -- he demonstrated what spiritual freedom looks like for all humanity.  We do not have to conform to beliefs that have come from some religious authority even if that authority is the Bible. This is not the Bible's fault but the way a number of authorities use the Bible to teach others what they must believe to be saved. 

    This may sound like heresy but think about it.  If everyone had to believe every word in the Bible as coming from God, no one in Jesus' day would have accepted much that he had to say.  Many lessons that he taught were dramatically different from the teachings that were in the early scrolls of the Torah. 

    By teaching that God's nature is love and that God exists inside of each of us, Jesus was clearly abandoning the God of his heritage.  The nature of God during Jesus' day was understood quite differently. Here are some references to God's nature.

God fought in support of the Jews as they killed other people.  (Exodus 14: 25-27) God spread disease among His Chosen as a punishment.  (Exodus 15:26)  Once, Moses convinced God to change his mind. (Exodus 32:14) God once ordered Moses to kill all the leaders of Israel. (Numbers 25:4)

    Why the Jews worshipped such a moody, tyrannical, vindictive and judgmental deity is beyond anyone's guess.  Yahweh was the God of their heritage and the Jews were given little latitude by their leaders to understand God for themselves. Jesus delivered people from their fear of God and all of his demands and rules.

    The new lens that Jesus created with his life and teachings has given us a God that can become a living presence within us.  We are free from requirements and disciplines from a deity that is threatening.  We are free to seek God from our own level of awareness.

    What religious authorities are teaching today can be dismissed if their teachings evoke fear in us rather than compassion.  This shift was a quantum leap from obedience to laws to freedom for individuals to connect with God in their own unique way when they were ready to open up to the mystical side of their lives. 

    According to Mark's Gospel, the two disciples that had met Jesus on the road returned to the other disciples in Jerusalem to share their good news.  When they told the others what they had experienced, the text in Mark's Gospels reveals that the disciples did not believe them.  (Mark 16:12)

    What we can take home with us today is an awareness that it does not matter when others do not believe us. What really matters is how our experiences have transformed our attitudes and goals.  The experience of God's presence causes our spirits to sing, it helps us to detach from life-issues that have been cycling for centuries and it helps us to develop attitudes that inspire our acceptance of others in spite of their level of spiritual awareness.

    Yesterday's Royal Gazette featured a quote by Mike Royko on its editorial page:

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn't the faintest idea what the heck is going on.

    When we are living in the Kingdom of God, we tend to see things a little differently from Mike.  Our mission is to reflect what living in Heaven looks like and not reflect a toxic perception of what is happening in the world.  We understand what is going on in the world but we choose to remain a light in darkness and portray a visual solution to the attitudes of fear and bitterness.

    In dying, Jesus demonstrated what spiritual freedom looks like.  He had a firm grasp on the bigger picture that placed him in the realm of understanding that is far beyond the petty squabbles created by people who believe they alone have the truth.  He said, "Follow me and not them."  (Matthew 15:14)



Each time we gather for worship, O God, we are challenged to think differently.  This remains difficult to do since many of our self-taught responses have been in place for most of our lives.  Jesus taught us to measure success by our experience of happiness and peace.  He taught us that those who have light should let it shine in all circumstances.  Heal us, O God, when we give authority to the voices that prevent us from taking leaps of faith and that cast doubts on our ability to shed old habits. In spite of our struggles, thank you for continuing to work through us to help make our world a more wholesome place to live.  Amen.



Loving and merciful God, we are grateful for our Sabbath mornings when we can pause to refresh that part of ourselves we often neglect.  We wonder what our lives would be like if we never took time to nourish the captain of our ship, the decision-maker inside of us or the spirit that responds to all of life’s many varied circumstances.

We thank you for the little reminders that you send to us, that teach us how strong we are when our steps falter.  How easy it is to be filled with regret when we make mistakes or when we belittle ourselves for not being perfect. We thank you for the lessons we have learned from hindsight or from realizing the power that distractions have to blind and immobilize us when we least expect it. You always show up anyway. We thank you for your presence in the lives of our friends.  When we receive firm handshakes, their smiles and laughter, their support, we are reminded how nurturing others are to us.  

We live in a world that needs us to be more accepting of others just as we find them. How can you ever work through us if our worries, fears, prejudices and regrets prevent your presence within us from being seen by others?   Help us to let go of our need to be someone other than the angel-in-the-flesh that you created us to be.  With grateful hearts we thank you for being who you are.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .