A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon (April 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Emmaus Road U-Turn"

     I think that people can be divided into two groups. There are those who ignore “No U-turn” signs, and there are those who don’t. Which group are you in?
     Imagine a life without U-turns. Imagine a life where you’re heading the wrong way in life and it doesn’t feel like there’s any hope to make a change in your life.
     That’s what these two travelers were experiencing during their seven mile journey on that first Easter Sunday. They were trying to get away from the place where it had all gone wrong and where their hopes and dreams were sealed in the same tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed just a few days earlier.
     And as they were walking down the road, they were recounting all the events that had taken place those last few days…the parade where the crowd had waved palm branches and shouted hosanna to Jesus as he entered the city…the arrest in the garden…the trial…the crucifixion…and now, the wild and crazy rumor that those who visited the tomb earlier that day were told that he was alive.
     To them, they figured that rumor was fake news or wishful thinking. With all of these thoughts swirling through their heads, they were now traveling down the road toward the little village of Emmaus. They were struggling to make sense of all they were experiencing and feeling in that moment.
     And so they traveled and commiserated with each other about all these things. It’s times like this when you’re all tied up in knots, you’re confused, you’re angry, you’re in grief, and you just need to take a walk, or maybe go workout at the gym. Little did they know as they walked down that dusty Emmaus road, that they would experience a U-turn like no other. 

     Jesus appears to them as a stranger which is an interesting thought in and of itself. We don’t always recognize Jesus right away, do we? It’s only in hindsight where we look back and realize that he was with us the whole time.
     These two travelers, after realizing that the stranger was Jesus said to themselves, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?”
     I love this story because this is what we are always encouraging each other to do here at Athens First. We are encouraging each other to become more aware of how Jesus is present in our every day lives. We call these “Thin Place” moments. The phrase “thin place” refers to the thin place that is between heaven and earth where God is made present to us in very real ways.
     These two travelers experienced the ultimate thin place moment when they recognized this stranger as the Risen Christ.  Luke tells us that after Jesus left them, they got up right then, and returned to Jerusalem to find the disciples and share the good news of Easter with them. What they thought was fake news was actually real news.
     The good news of Easter was how they were able to make a U-turn and head in a new direction of life, hope, and great joy.
     Emmaus U-turns still happen today, thank God!
     Nationally known Christian author and speaker, Tony Campolo often tells the story of someone who made a U-turn in his life literally and spiritually. It’s a great story.
     Tony tells about the time he was asked to speak at a Pentecostal college. Before the service, eight men had him kneel so they could place their hands on his head and pray. Tony was glad to have the prayer, but each of them prayed a really long time, and the longer they prayed the more they pushed on Tony’s head. And then they even seemed to wander in their prayers. One of the men didn’t even pray for Tony. He prayed for some guy he was concerned about. He began to pray and said, “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right-hand side.”
     Tony wanted to interrupt and tell him that God already knew where the guy lived and didn’t need directions, but he just knelt there trying to keep his head upright.
     The prayer went on: “Lord, Charlie told me this morning that he was going to leave his wife and three kids. Step in and do something, God. Bring that family back together.”
     With that, the prayer time ended and Tony went on to preach at the college chapel. Things went well and he got in his car and began to drive home. As he drove on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he saw a hitchhiker and felt compelled to pick him up.
     Tony said, “We drove a few minutes and I said: ‘Hi, my name is Tony Campolo. What’s yours?’ He said, ‘My name is Charlie Stoltzfus.’ I couldn’t believe it! I got off the turnpike at the next exit and headed back. He got a bit uneasy with that and after a few minutes he said, “Hey mister, where are you taking me?’ I said, ‘I’m taking you home.’ He narrowed his eyes and asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because you just left your wife and three kids, right?’ That blew him away. ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right.’
     With shock written all over his face, he plastered himself against the car door and never took his eyes off me. Then I really did him in as I drove right to his silver trailer. When I pulled up, his eyes seemed to bulge as he asked, ‘How did you know that I lived here?’ I said, ‘God told me,’ which I guess he kind of did, right?
     When he opened the trailer door Charlie’s wife exclaimed, ‘You’re back! You’re back!’ He whispered in her ear and the more he talked, the bigger her eyes got. I said with real authority, ‘The two of you sit down. I’m going to talk and you two are going to listen.’ Man, did they listen…that afternoon I led those two young people to Jesus Christ.”
     Charlie Stoltzfus experienced an Emmaus Road U-turn that day.
     God specializes in U-turns.
     Good Friday leads to Easter. Death leads to New Life. Grief leads to Hope. Sadness leads to Great Joy!
      When I was a freshman in college, I was really struggling with what I was supposed to do with my life. I wasn’t happy with my major, and so I decided to put all of my focus on playing baseball in college. When baseball was no longer fulfilling my happiness, I started to feel really, really empty.
     I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was headed down a road without any clear direction or purpose in life.
     That changed one day, when I happened to come across an old cassette tape from a county-wide youth rally that I had attended when I was in my early teens.
     After I dusted off that old cassette tape, and by the way, for those of you who grew up with Bluetooth and streaming devices, a cassette tape was something that cavemen had to use a long time ago.
     Anyway, I listened to that cassette tape in which the speaker challenged the youth who had gathered for that rally to make a commitment to put Jesus Christ first in our lives.  He said that if we would put Jesus first in everything we did, that we would experience a sense of peace and purpose in our lives.
     Now, remember, I was there at that youth rally and heard that message in person, but when I listened to it on tape several years later as a struggling freshman in college, it was like I was hearing if for the very first time.
     I listened to that tape over and over again, just taking in the message to put Jesus first in everything I do. And then, one afternoon, I’ll never forget it. This is what became my Emmaus Road U-turn.
     One afternoon, I got on my knees and I made a recommitment of my life to Christ. While on my knees, I promised Jesus that I would do whatever he wanted me to do. I told him that I had tried to do things my way, but now I wanted to trust in him.
     When I stood up from that prayer, it was like this huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt a peace that I had been missing in my life. I could sense that a turn around was about to happen in a really good way.
     There were two things that Jesus wanted me to do immediately. The first thing was to study and get good grades even though I wasn’t sure about my major. It worked! I made the Dean’s list the next Semester.
     The next thing Jesus wanted me to do, was to begin a new bible study group by inviting people my age who didn’t have a church home.
     That bible study group met regularly for the rest of my time in college. Two people in that group ended up becoming pastors. One of the group members stopped going to parties every weekend and started attending church on a regular basis. His Emmaus Road U-turn was pretty dramatic. For others, we were able to encourage and help each other grow in our faith.
     My Emmaus Road U-turn led me to respond to a calling into the pastoral ministry. It was only when I finally stopped walking down a road where I wasn’t following God and putting Christ first, that I was able to turn around and follow a new direction in my life.
     The wonderful thing about Emmaus U-turns is that they appear all along our faith journey. Jesus is always present with us and invites us to follow him in new and life transforming ways.
     The gospel writer, Luke, is very clever in the details he gives us on how these two travelers were finally able to recognize that the stranger who had been walking with them was Jesus. Luke tells us that it wasn’t until they were about to eat together, that they figured it out.
     It was when this stranger broke bread that they finally had their “aha!” moment. Think about this for a moment. How did Jesus keep a straight face for that long?? There is no way that I would have been able to hide my expression. Jesus must have taken some pleasure in watching their faces when they finally realized it was him.   
     The other thing I like about this story is that Jesus doesn’t force himself on these two travelers. He becomes their traveling companion and invites them think about their faith in a new way.
     So, Luke tells us that it was when Jesus broke bread that they figured it out. “Breaking bread” is Luke’s code phrase for what we refer to as the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
     Luke is reminding us in this story that if we want to follow a new direction of faith that includes the hope and promise of resurrection and new life, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a great place to encounter the Risen Christ in our lives. He also emphasizes the importance of the scriptures since that’s an important part of his story as well.
     The sacrament and the scriptures – both are important ways that we encounter the Risen Christ in new and fresh ways.
    Rachel Held Evans is a Christian author and speaker. She has an interesting story of how the Sacrament of Holy Communion helped her eyes to see Christ in a new way in her life.
     She says how Holy Communion has always been important to her but it took on a whole new meaning for her when she was the keynote speaker at a large youth rally worship service a few years ago.
     The person who was in charge of the rally had asked her to hold the communion bread at one of the several communion stations during the youth rally. Rachel was glad to do so.
     Since there were hundreds of youth at this event, that meant that several youth would be coming to her station to receive a piece of bread. They would then dip the bread into the chalice of grape juice which someone would be holding next to her.
     Rachel knew to say the words, “The body of Christ broken for you,” to each youth who came to her station. What took her off guard, was how many times she had to repeat those words because of all the youth who came to her station.
     She said how it was so interesting to see how each youth received the bread in their own unique way. Some came with a serious look on their face. Others were smiling. Some expressed nervous laughter. Some looked indifferent when they received the bread from her because for some, this was probably the first time they had ever received communion. She said that the variety of expressions of these young people reminded her of how God’s grace is offered to us wherever we may be on the road of our faith journey.
     But what impressed her the most about serving communion to so many youth that day, was in the number of times she said that phrase, “The body of Christ broken for you.” She would look in the eyes of each youth and say, “The body of Christ broken for you.” “The body of Christ broken for you.” “The body of Christ broken for you.”  “The body of Christ broken for you.” Imagine saying that same phrase over and over, like about 80 times!
     She said that just by saying that phrase so many times, “The body of Christ broken for you,” she was able to sense the presence of the Risen Christ in a very real way, like she had never experienced before.
     Like those two travelers on the road to Emmaus, the breaking of the bread opens our eyes to see the Risen Christ, and lead us into a new direction that is filled with hope, joy, and new life.
     Thank God for U-turns.

The Emmaus U-Turn
Small Group Questions
Luke 24:13-35
April 30, 2017

The Emmaus Road story is about two followers of Jesus who are walking toward the little village of Emmaus. They are very sad over the death of Jesus just a few days earlier. They had heard the rumor that Jesus was alive, but didn't believe it to be true. The women who visited the empty tomb that morning knew that Jesus was alive. This story reminds us that we are all at different places along the road of our journey of faith.

Share where you feel you are in your spiritual walk with Christ? Are you struggling with doubts? Are you feeling strong in your faith? Are you at a place where you have a lot of unanswered questions about your faith? 

When the two followers of Jesus realized they had been in the presence of the Risen Christ, it was like a U-turn in their faith. The Gospel writer, Luke tells us that their hearts burned within them when they realized it was the Risen Christ. Pastor Robert shared about a U-Turn experience in his life when he made a recommitment of his life to Christ while he was in college. It led him into a new direction of trusting Christ.

Have you ever experienced an Emmaus U-Turn experience along your journey of faith? Share with the group.

The followers of Jesus were able to recognize the Risen Christ along their walk to Emmaus because the stranger shared the scriptures with them and when he broke bread with them during their meal. Pastor Robert shared that the breaking of bread is the gospel writer's code for what we know today as the Sacrament of Holy Communion. 

In what ways do the scriptures and the Sacrament of Holy Communion help you to experience the Risen Christ in your life? 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (April 16/Easter Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[The sanctuary was filled, the Easter lilies were beautiful, the choir was superb as usual, the new sanctuary air conditioning worked to perfection, and even the sermon was "above average." We were also blessed to have former member, Joyce Lambert provide us with a video recording of the Easter scripture reading from John's Gospel. (See video recording below.) Joyce was a member of our Leadership Board and was on the committee that helped design our remodeled sanctuary. She moved to a new community before our church renovations were completed. It was great to hear her voice!]

O Risen Christ, we have come to the garden, not alone, but with each other on this glorious Easter Sunday morning. We came expecting to pay you our last respects, but we were startled to find your tomb empty and lilies decorating what was supposed to be your grave.

You have proven yet again that there are no thorns or thistles that are too great for your love to overcome, not even the thorns and thistles of when we have denied and betrayed you. There really isn’t anything that you can’t overcome, is there? Not even death itself!

Like Mary, we don’t want to leave the Garden Tomb. We want to savor this joyous moment. We want to take in the fresh scent of the flowers and cling to you. But you have something even better in mind for us, yes even better than lingering here at the Garden Tomb. You are calling each one of us to be your gardeners and sow seeds of resurrection and new life wherever we go.

To the college students walking by our church on their way to class. To the new neighbors who just moved in down the street. To the people who come here for Monday Lunch. To the friend who is anxious about an upcoming surgery. To the family grieving the loss of a loved one. 

Risen Christ, you are calling each of us by name to be your gardeners in sowing seeds of love, hope, and new life. Thank you for the good news of our faith that just doesn’t point back to the Garden of Eden and the Garden Tomb, but also looks forward to that day when all of your creation will be renewed and made whole again, that day when we will find ourselves in the beautiful New Jerusalem Garden, where all the nations of this world will know of your healing love.

We long for that day when there will no longer be chemical or nuclear weapons. We long for that day when there will no longer be wars or rumors of war. We long for that day when there will be peace on earth.

Until that third and final garden blossoms, we continue to pray the words that Jesus taught his disciples and now invites us to say together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sermon (April 16/Easter Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Story of Three Gardens"

     One of the reoccurring themes we find throughout the bible is a focus on gardens.  And since the bible is a collection of sixty-six books that has been written over the course of several centuries, and by many different authors, any reoccurring theme is worth some serious thought and focus.

     The bible, in telling us the story of God’s plan of salvation for the world, refers to three gardens, one of which is mentioned in our Gospel reading this morning, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

     From the opening of his Gospel, John has already been pointing us way back to the first garden in the bible, the Garden of Eden.  You might remember that John begins his gospel with three very important words, “In the beginning.”

The Garden of Eden

      These are the same three words that begin the bible.  And from there, these three words lead into the creation story.  In the story of creation, we read about the beautiful Garden of Eden, a garden that God planted which included trees, rivers, and fruit to eat.

     Next, God creates man to take care of the garden and to freely eat the fruit from the garden with the exception of the fruit from one particular tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The garden was given the name “Eden” because the word, “Eden,” literally means, “delight.”  So this was a very beautiful, fruit-bearing, and delightful place.  The creation story also tells us that God created a woman from the man and together they provided companionship for each other and they took care of God’s creation.

     The picture here, from the very beginning of the bible is that God created the world and called it good.  It was a world that was filled with beauty, delight, abundance, peace, and harmony.  This description of God’s creation of the world and the Garden of Eden tells us a lot about who God is. 

     First of all, God is the creator, meaning that God is set apart from creation and yet maintains a close relationship with creation.

     Secondly, God’s desire is for creation to be filled with beauty and harmony.  This was the original intention of God’s creation.

     And thirdly, God entrusts us with caring for creation.

     Not too long after creation, the Book of Genesis tells us that we disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil and because of this disobedience, the ground was cursed and for the first time, we hear about thorns and thistles growing in God’s beautiful garden.

     The story of this first garden is a story that reminds us that even though we can see glimpses of God’s beauty and presence in creation, it is also a world that is filled with sin and brokenness.  We don’t have to look too far, to see the thorns and thistles that are still part of God’s good creation.  Low wages, high poverty rates, war, disease, drug addictions, hate groups, hopelessness, pollution, violence, and unfortunately, we can easily add more to this list.

     Throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel knew about this first garden and God’s original design for creation.  They knew that even though God had chosen them to be a people who would care for creation, that in some ways, they were also part of the problem because of their sin and disobedience.  But they also maintained hope that one day God would make everything thing new again.

     Listen to the prophet Isaiah who points the people of Israel to the future hope when those thorns and thistles will be totally removed.  Isaiah says, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

     So when the gospel writer, John, begins to tell us about Jesus, he has us think back to this first garden.  The first garden which represents how God created the world and called it good.  The first garden, which soon after God created it, became filled with thorns and thistles because of humanity’s sin.  The first garden, which was awaiting to be redeemed and renewed by a special act of God’s grace when the thorns and thistles of this world would finally be uprooted.

     Once we know about this 1st garden, John is then able to tell us about a 2nd garden which is the location of the Easter story found in our Gospel reading this morning.  And this 2nd garden is known as the Garden Tomb.  Mary Magdalene comes to visit the tomb of Jesus.  The tomb is in a garden.

The Garden Tomb

     If you go to the Holy Land today, you can visit what is called “The Garden Tomb” just outside of Jerusalem which is one of two places that Christians believe Jesus’ was laid to rest after his crucifixion.  It’s a beautiful place with many flowers and you can even go into the tomb. And even though this might not be the actual garden tomb of Jesus, scholars are in general agreement that it at least has the look and feel of what the garden tomb of Jesus would have been like.

     When Mary notices that the tomb is empty, she immediately goes to tell Peter and another disciple.  After they both come to the tomb and find that it is empty, they return to their homes but Mary stays in the garden.

     With tears in her face and still not knowing who might have taken Jesus’ body, she enters the tomb and she sees two angels who ask her why she is weeping.  Mary then turns around and she sees Jesus, only she doesn’t recognize him right away since he was now in his resurrected body.

     Like the angels, Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping.  And notice what the gospel writer, John, says next.  This is a very importan detail.  “Supposing him to be the gardener.”

     Mary thought that Jesus was a gardener because after all this was a garden tomb. In a way, Mary was right.  Jesus is a gardener, because it would be by his death and resurrection that the thorns and the thistles of God’s good creation would finally be removed forever. 

     This is the good news of Easter.

  • Jesus, the gardener, is the Lord and Savior of the world. 
  • Jesus, the gardener, is the one to whom the prophet Isaiah was pointing.
  • Jesus, the gardener, was God himself, who came so that we might have new life. 
  • Jesus, the gardener is the new Adam because of his perfect obedience and death on the cross. 
  • Jesus, the gardener, the one who reversed the curse on creation thanks to the empty tomb.
  • Jesus, the gardener, who couldn’t be contained behind a large stone of a cold tomb.
  • Jesus, the gardener, the one who is more than able to help us overcome the thorns and thistles of life. 
  • Jesus, the gardener, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

     The good news of our faith is that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first garden, God’s good creation, has been redeemed and reclaimed by God in the 2nd garden, the Garden Tomb. 

     And here’s the really good news.  You and I are part of that first garden, for we were created in the image of God.  And because of Easter, we are invited to receive the saving and healing love of Jesus Christ which can remove the thorns and thistles in our lives so that we can be the people God has called us to be, a people who have been rescued and redeemed from the power of sin and death.

     An Anglican Church Bishop led a group of lay people in his diocese to the Holy Land to visit the sites of Jesus.  During their trip, they visited the place which is believed to be where Jesus was crucified.  And then they visited the Garden Tomb.  All during the trip, the Bishop carefully explained the meaning of each of these sites.

     There was an older man on the trip who wasn’t a member of the parish and who only attended church on rare occasions.  He lived in the area that the parish was located and joined the group for the trip because he had always wanted to visit the Holy Land.  The Bishop could tell that this man was deeply moved as they retraced the footsteps of Jesus.

     After they had visited the place where Jesus was crucified and the Garden tomb, this man turned to the Bishop for some reassurance and asked him, “Are you saying that Jesus really lived and that you believe he actually taught and healed people as you said.”  “That’s right,” the Bishop said.  “Jesus was a real person who lived, taught, and healed people during the 1st century.” 

     The older man continued his questioning, “And he really died on a cross and then came out of the tomb alive and he’s alive today?”  Again, the Bishop responded, “Yes, that’s right.  Jesus really died on a cross and rose again, and is alive today.” 

     That’s all this man needed to hear.  He said, “I want to become one of his followers, then.”  So right there, during their trip to the Holy Land, this older man accepted Jesus Christ, was baptized, and from that day on, became a follower of Jesus.

     It’s here at this second garden, the Garden Tomb, that John invites us to join Mary in hearing Jesus call our name so that we can know that Jesus truly is the one who has defeated sin and death and offers to us new life in God’s new creation.

The New Jerusalem Garden

     And all of this leads us to the third garden that we find in the Bible.  The New Jerusalem Garden.  If the first garden, the Garden of Eden is the story of God’s good creation which has become broken through our disobedience, and if the second garden is the garden of the empty tomb where Jesus defeated sin and death through his death and resurrection, the third garden is that time in the future when heaven and earth will come together and all of creation will be renewed forever.

     Notice that after Mary recognizes who Jesus is, she tries to embrace him, but Jesus doesn’t allow her to do so, because he had not yet ascended to be with his heavenly Father.  Now, why would Jesus not allow Mary, who has just discovered that Jesus is alive, to embrace him?  I think if we keep in mind that there are three gardens of which the bible speaks, Jesus’ response to Mary in these verses might make a little more sense.

     Jesus’ resurrection is the launching of God’s long awaited new creation.  It’s a launching of new life and hope.  It’s an advance sign of the new life that awaits God’s people in the future. There are still thistles and thorns in creation that need to be removed even after the victory of Easter’s empty tomb.  And Jesus expects us, you and me, to be his gardeners and to sow seeds of hope in caring for all of God’s people and all of God’s creation.

     What does Jesus tell Mary right after he tells her to not cling to him?  He tells her to go and share the good news of his resurrection with the other disciples.  And this is why Mary is known as the apostle to the apostles. Because she went and did just as Jesus had told her. 

     And this is just a brief side note but it’s worth mentioning.  Jesus shows us that if you need something done, ask a woman to do it.

     By telling Mary to not cling to him, but to instead begin sharing the good news of the resurrection, Jesus is reminding us that there are more than two gardens.  There’s the Garden of Eden that God created and called good but became infected with thorns and thistles through our sins and disobedience.

     Then, there’s the Garden Tomb in which Jesus has inaugurated new creation thanks to his death and resurrection.  But all of this still points us to the third garden in the bible.  To find this garden, we go to the very end of the bible, the Book of Revelation. In the last chapter of the bible, we get a glimpse of that time in the future when Jesus will reappear and will set up his rule over all of creation once and for all.

     We are told that this third garden will have a tree of life with all kinds of fruit and a river will run through it reminding us of the first garden before the thorns and thistles.  In this third garden, there will be no more crying, no more mourning, no more tears, and no more death.

     From beginning to end, the bible is a story of three gardens.  The Garden of Eden, the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of the New Jerusalem.

     Like he did for Mary, Jesus calls each one of us, to leave this Garden Tomb, and go into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are called to be agents of God’s healing love in our community and world.  We are the ones Jesus is depending on to serve as his gardeners for a broken and hurting world.

     This was never clearer to me than during a late July afternoon back in 2009 as I was standing on my second floor hotel balcony looking down on the city streets of San Lucas Toliman in Guatemala.  I was with a mission team of fourteen people from my church who had gone there to work on a water project which would provide clean water to a small community located just outside of the city.

     Our team was exhausted from a long day of digging trenches under the hot Guatemalan sun.  Someone on my team, had awaken me from my pre-dinner nap and said, “Robert, come to the balcony.  You gotta see what Rock is doing!”

     Rock was a member of my church who is also a funeral director.  From our 2nd floor balcony, he was playing a game with about twenty Guatemalan children who had gathered below.  Since he couldn’t speak Spanish and they couldn’t speak English, he had them playing a game in which they had to do exactly what he was doing which were often silly motions and gestures with his face and arms.

     They loved it and were laughing the whole time.  In just a few minutes, the twenty children turned into thirty children and from my balcony I yelled down to Rock, “Now what are you going to do for all these children?”  He shouted back up to me, “I’m going to go down to the store and buy candy to hand out to them.”

     And sure enough, that’s what he did.  The only problem was, as he was distributing the candy, those thirty children turned into forty children.   Rock became their new best friend! 

     Then, Rock got another idea.  He ended up forming a parade and had the children follow him up and down the polluted streets of this impoverished city as he whistled some silly song along the way.  By the time the impromptu parade ended, there must have been at least 50 to 60 children who had been following him.

      “Rock’s parade,” as we now refer to it, became one of the highlights of our mission trip.  By stepping out in faith, Rock wasn’t so much a funeral director, as he was a gardener, who was living out his resurrection faith by tilling the soil of God’s garden and offering the hope and good news of Jesus Christ.

     And until Jesus comes again, and we find ourselves in the third and final garden of God’s new creation, may we all do the same. 

     Happy gardening!

The Story of Three Gardens
Small Group Questions
Genesis 2:4-17; Revelation 22:1-5; & John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017

The bible is a story about three gardens which includes the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, the Garden Tomb of Easter in our Gospel reading, and the future New Jerusalem Garden that we find at the end of the Book of Revelation. 

Do you like to garden or visit gardens? What kinds of vegetation would you want in your ideal garden?

The bible describes the future hope of all of creation in terms of an incredibly beautiful garden where there is harmony, love, and plenty for all. The Garden of Eden had all of this in the beginning of creation. The Garden Tomb is where God launched new creation to overcome sin and death which infested the first garden. The New Jerusalem Garden is the future garden when heaven and earth will one day come together perfectly, what we would call "heaven."

What are some creative ways that we can share this story of three gardens with our friends, neighbors, co-workers so that they can know of God's love for the world through Jesus Christ?

In his sermon, Pastor Robert made the observation that we are all called to be "gardeners" in sharing God's love and caring for God's creation. Our church offers many opportunities for us to be gardeners through outreach ministries like our "Athens First Saturday" community outreach. 

Brainstorm some ways that your small group can do something together as God's gardeners to help till God's creation with love and kindness.