When I was on Sabbatical, I spent many hours reading books and essays by skeptics, doubters, and militant atheists. I read them so that I could stand before you in the integrity and sincerity of my convictions to advocate the Way of faith. In my reading, I hit upon a two-fold truth. On the one hand, most agnostics and atheists have abandoned faith in God precisely because they cannot reconcile the idea of a loving God with all the pain and suffering in our world, a wold that lives under a sentence of death. On the other hand, when they begin their attack on God, they always begin by attacking the god of the philosophers and deists, in that they usually begin by attacking the philosophical proofs for the existence of God.
I found this interesting because we Moravians have never bothered to defend the god of the philosophers and deists. Rather, we proclaim the God the New Testament calls, “The God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Consider if you will the 2nd of the Eight Essentials. It does not proclaim “the love of God” for the world. It proclaims “the love of God the Father for the world.” The mere mention of “God the Father” reminds us of “God the Son.”
From our earliest days, we Moravians have been a Christ centered church. That does not mean that we think that we are more holy, or more pious, or closer to Jesus Christ than the other denominations. It does not mean that we ignore God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. It means simply that we think the ultimate revelation of God is found in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in 2nd Corinthians 4:6:
6 It is the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
It also means that we Moravians believe that nothing says more about “the love of God the Father” than “the cross of God the Son.” We came to this conclusion honestly. We did not figure it out in the ivory tower of a college or seminary classroom. We discovered it out where the rubber meets the road, in the mission field, trying to share Christ with those who had yet to believe. J.E. Hutton tells the story of our early mission to the Eskimos in Greenland. Sharing the gospel with the Eskimos was not an easy task. The weather was bleak and the outlook of the people was bleaker. The missionaries pulled out all the stops. They tried everything. They even threatened the Eskimos with the fires of hell. When they did the Eskimos rubbed their hands together and joked that it would be nice to be warm for a change. They were soon discouraged and even a little depressed. One missionary even wrote a poem about how dismal things were. He wrote:
Here toils a little group of men,
Endowed with scanty powers;
And day by day in bleak despair,
We wile away the hours.
Then those early Moravians changed their tactics. Instead of telling the people the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and the story of sin, and the fall, they began to describe the love of God for us as it was displayed in the cross of God’s Eternal Son, Jesus Christ. One missionary wrote:
At the story of Adam and Eve, they wondered; but at the story of Christ and his cross, they wept, and sometimes, at the baptismal service, their tears fell into the font.
When Count Zinzendorf learned about the success of the Greenland Mission, and how it came about he wrote:
“Henceforth, we shall preach nothing but the love of the slaughtered Lamb.”
In hitting upon the centrality of Christ and his cross, those early Moravian rediscovered the approach of St. Paul in Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. Paul was speaking against a backdrop of twenty-years of experience when he wrote:
2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2
Early in my ministry I hit upon the importance of Christ crucified in my own life and ministry. I had completed seminary and was taking a course in Clinical Pastoral Education at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. It lasted eight weeks. I attended a few classes, but most of the time I actively worked as a hospital chaplain. It was a good experience. I was not just learning about ministry, I was doing ministry.
My summer was up and down.
I shall never forget the joy of watching a young man who received a kidney transplant from a relative, and was able to get off dialysis for the first time in his adult life. To celebrate he and I went to see the first episode in the Star Wars Trilogy. When we left the movie, he told me that he felt “the Force was with him, too.” Then he smiled and said that his faith in Christ had enabled him to endure times when he felt like his temporal situation was hopeless.
Likewise, I shall never forget going to the room of a woman who was about to have open-heart surgery. Today, that surgery has a phenomenal success ratio. In those days it did not. When I entered her room, I saw that half-a-dozen members of her family surrounded her. They sat in silence. Their faces drooped. Their body language implied that they had gathered to watch the prisoner eat her last meal. Their visit did not cheer the patient up. The gloom and doom was so thick I felt like I was swimming in it. I had trouble catching my breath. In thirty years of ministry, I have never left a hospital room without asking, “May I ask God’s blessing upon you.” In all that time, I have been refused only once. As I was leaving this woman’s room, I asked if I could pray for her. Her husband quickly responded, “No!” The next day she died on the table, and I can still remember the look of longing in her eyes when I asked if she wanted prayer. Of course, I prayed, and I believe she prayed, too, despite her gloomy relatives and her husband’s refusal.
I had one really important victory. Early on I was assigned to a floor, and one doctor on that floor told me that he did not have much use for chaplains in a state institution. We had a strained relationship. Then he came to me about one of his patients, a woman from the hills of Kentucky. She needed a routine surgery that would drastically improve her life. Her preacher had convinced her to pray for a healing and forgo the surgery. The doctor asked me to speak with her. I did. I shared with her Luke chapter 5, how Jesus said, “It not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” I shared how Paul called Luke himself, “the beloved physician,” at least in part because Luke was a good physician to Paul on his missionary journeys. (Col. 4:4) We talked, and then I left her to make her decision. The next day the doctor sought me out, and told me the news. He thanked me and offered to buy my lunch.
One case that summer meant more to me than any other. It dominated my time at the Medical Center. A man was brought into the hospital with a stroke. He needed treatment, but he thought he was dying, and he was more concerned with the state of his soul than with the state of his body. He asked for a chaplain, and the chief of chaplains sent me. I entered his room to find him surrounded by doctors, including the doctor I have already mentioned. A sea of white coats parted to give me access to the man. Needless to say, I was intimidated. I felt small, and young, and alone. As the doctors listened in, I reached out and took his hand. I said, “I understand that you feel at odds with God.” He shook his head, yes. Then I said, “I understand that you wish to make friends with Jesus Christ.” He smiled weakly, and said as best he could, “Yes.” I prayed a short prayer with him, commending him to God, and then I left the room. To my surprise, the man made a remarkable recovery. Over the next several weeks, we became friends, and, at last, he even managed to leave the hospital under his own power. Some weeks after that I was assigned to a new floor, the intensive care floor. To my surprise, I found this man there. He had had another stroke. In the course of his treatment, doctors had had to amputate his leg. The stroke affected his mind. He no longer recognized me, but I kept going to see him. There is more to tell, but I am going to give you the condensed version. I saw him the last day I was assigned to the hospital. I stood by his bed and watched as several interns picked bone chips out of the socket that had once contained his leg. I stood by, and watched, so that, if he did somehow recognize me, he would know that I accepted him as he was now. Then, after about twenty minutes, I turned and left the room. I stood in the hallway outside his room, and reflected on the summer I had had. Before I knew it, my lips formed an audible question. “O God,” I cried, “Do you care about us? Do you feel our pain? Do you know our suffering?”
Almost as soon as I asked that question, I received an answer. It was in the words of a hymn by Charles Wesley:
Amazing love, how can it be, that you my God should die for me.
I want to tell you a story that I have told you before. Indeed, I have told this story several times before, yet I dare tell it again because each time I tell it, someone hears it for the very first time. The first time I told it a visitor approached me and told me he had just lost his wife, and he himself had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He told me that he came to church angry with God. He identified with the story. He told me he had let go of his anger, and was going forward to meet his illness in faith.
It is a story of a man who had lost his faith. At one time he had been an elder in the church, then, his brother became sick with cancer, and, after a long illness, he died. The man resigned the board of Elders, and never came back to church. Nevertheless, his family continued as members of the church, and when I became a pastor in that church, I visited with them on many occasions. In the course of my visits, the man and I became good friends. He was one of the wisest men I have ever known. Naturally, I never left his home without inviting him back to church. He always politely refused. When he did, I would laugh and say, “Well, some Sunday morning, I am going to surprise you. I am going to come and see you!” I left his church, and that never happened. Then my opportunity came. On May 5th, 1989, a storm ripped through Winston-Salem. It was the same storm that felled several great oaks in the yard of our church. If you think our oaks are beautiful now, you should have seen them then. I was scheduled to go out of town, and Frank Venerable, my associate at the time, was preaching here. Well, I could not go out of town because the power was out at our house, and we had storm damage, too. On Saturday, I came here and helped the men of the church clean up the mess. They ran the chainsaws and along with many others I stacked wood and hauled brush. Then on Sunday morning, I got up and dressed for church as usual. At the last minute, my wife decided to go to church with her mother. I saw an opportunity to keep a promise I had made long, long ago. I heard the man now had cancer, and that he did not have long to live. When I knocked on the man’s door, he was surprised to see me. I was surprised to see how sick he was. He told me that his family was at church, and invited me in. We recalled my promise, and laughed about it. Then we had a good visit remembering other, better times. Just before I left, I grew bold. I looked full into his emaciated face and said, “You know, when I see you suffering like this, it makes me angry at God. In fact, when I see you like this, the only God I can believe in is the God of the cross.” When I said that, great tears rolled down his cheek, he hung his head, and said, “Yes, the God of the Cross is the only God I can believe in too.” I am not ashamed to say that I embraced him. We prayed. Some weeks later he died his faith in the God of the cross absolutely intact.
Some would say that is the end of the story. We Christians would not. Paul did not say, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus of Nazareth and him crucified.” He did not talk about the bad end of a good man. He said, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In so doing, he spoke of a way traveled once for all by our now victorious Lord and Saviour. Paul’s simple statement is emphatically a resurrection kerygma, or “preaching.” The God of the cross is also the God of the Resurrection. In Romans 1:4 St. Paul says that Jesus was “designated Son of God in Power, through a Spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.”
We Christians are not naive. We know the troubles in this world, but we know too that life is good because we live not under a sentence of death, but under the promise of life.
In John Chapter 3 it is sometimes hard to know who is talking, whether Jesus, or the evangelist. It is hard because the original text was written without punctuation, and because Jesus speaks of himself in the third person. I believe it is the risen Christ, speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit, about the love of God the Father. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he now says to us what he once said to Nicodemus, and to the Community of the Beloved Disciple.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The 2nd Essential, is “the Love of God the Father.”