Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
The good news is we are still here. The bad news is we are still here.
The good news is the world as we know it did not come to an end yesterday as some had predicted. The bad news is if, as others predicted, Jesus gathered the faithful into heaven then it appears all of us have been left behind.
The rapture or the belief that Jesus will bring the faithful into heaven before the final judgment is one that is shared by many in our churches today. But such a belief is relatively new compared to the early history of the church.
According to Harold Camping, the 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, California, the rapture will be followed by a period of great tribulation. Then and only then will the world as we know it come to an end.
For Camping yesterday was the day of the rapture. As for the final judgment, he said that will occur this coming January. (The Maui News, Thursday, May 19, 2011, page A6-A7)
It is easy to join the chorus of voices of those who deride Camping’s prophecy that comes from questionable numerological calculations based on his reading of the Bible. It is easy to accuse Camping of exploiting the fears and anxieties of those who are troubled by wars and rumors of wars and by drought and famine, floods and earthquakes, and all other manner of natural disasters.
Such derision and accusation may provide us with an immediate sense of our own self-importance. But I suspect that in some way Camping is genuinely concerned about what he believes.
Yet, the Bible is clear that no one – not even Harold Camping - knows the day or the hour when Jesus will come again. It is written that “about that day and hour (when Christ is to return) no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:32-44)
While we may be quick to dismiss Camping for his predictions, it is evident that many today feel the future is uncertain. It is this dis-ease that has produced a body of literature both within and outside the pages of the Bible that gives hope to those who have no hope.
Our reading from The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:55-60) reminds us that the story of the Christian movement after the resurrection of Jesus was a time in which the good news was proclaimed “with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:31). As a result, the movement that began in Jerusalem quickly spread into Judea and Samaria, and then to “the ends of the earth.”
What makes the movement significant is its beginning in Jerusalem among the Jewish followers of Jesus and after a period of amazing growth among Jews, the message came to the Gentiles. In our reading this morning we are told that Stephen was among seven who were chosen to assist the disciples as elders in caring for the physical needs of the members.
Stephen was “full of grace and power” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) Through Stephen and others many were added to their number.
We remember Stephen as the first “martyr.” He was honored and respected by others but the temple leaders charged him with blasphemy. He tried for blasphemy and is found guilty and is sentenced to death by stoning.
The name Stephen is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning “witness.” So to be a martyr is to be a “witness.” And in that sense we are all martyrs.
I imagine many in the early Christian movement became troubled by the persecution of Stephen and many others. I imagine many longed for the second coming of Christ to assuage their fears and anxieties.
It is true there are Christians all around the world who still are killed because of their faith but it is also true that there are Christians all around the world who die after having lived a full life. We are surrounded then by a cloud of witnesses - those who have been killed and those have died and gone before us as well as by those who are living in our midst.
The Rev. Dr. Edward Wulfekuehler, Jr. died three years ago at the age of 80. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928.
Ed was a good and dear friend and member of our church family. When Ed died his wife, Carol Burdick, was at his side. It was Carol who wrote: “ . . . Ed’s humor and smile were legendary throughout his life and (both) appeared in sermons, social settings and through his illness.”
Ed served as a military chaplain in Korea and the United States. He served as a pastor in California, Missouri, and Hawai‘i as well as in Aoetearoa or New Zealand.
In many ways Ed and I were different from each other and yet somehow we shared a common joy in laughter. We would go together for morning walks once a week around the neighborhood where he and Carol lived.
It was during one of our walks that our conversation turned to what we each thought about the “second coming of Christ.” We agreed that the Biblical text and the teaching of the church remind us that “Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Yet it made little sense to us whenever others would insist that they knew the time and date of his return. It was on one of those walks that Ed said, “Jesus comes every time a human heart opens and receives the gift of God’s love.”
I insisted that whether or not Jesus comes tomorrow or the next day or the next week or month or year, we ought to live our lives as though he would arrive at any moment. Kahu Ed was not a martyr in the sense that he died at the hand of another human being but he was a witness to the enduring love of God.
There are others we know – a child, a tūtū, a neighbor, a friend, even a stranger, a man, a woman, a teacher, a doctor – who have become for each of us enduring witnesses of that same love. We give thanks for each one.
For Stephen, an elder in the early church; for Kahu Ed and countless others, we give thanks.
May we be empowered by the same Spirit that empowered each of them to live a faithful life and like them, may we be faithful witnesses of the risen Christ.
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