Sunday, July 31, 2005

Romans 4:7-12

Personally, the entire circumcision discussion got a bit confusing there for me. That's kind of funny to me since the passage itself is so incredibly powerful. Sometimes it is just easy to get bogged down in language and miss the real point. The real point here is forgiveness. How many of us have ever made a mistake (come on, I want to see those hands raised)? How many have made a really big mistake? How many have broken a relationship or someone's heart? Unfortunately I've done all of these things, and I'd guess many of you have as well.

But one of the reasons God has such a strong hold on me is unconditional love. No matter how many times I mess up He will forgive me. This passage is telling me that I am blessed because my sin will not count against me.

But this passage has an even stronger message for the world. Remember that whole confusing part about circumcision? What its saying is that to be forgiven I don't have to be anyone special. I don't have to be part of the special few who are selected to take part in some ceremony. I can be myself.

What this all says is that anyone and everyone is able to be forgiven in God's eyes. Truly, when it comes to eternity, whose other opinion matters?


Saturday, July 30, 2005

Acts 17:16-34

In this section of Acts, Paul, waiting in Athens, was "deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

Today, it isn't statues or pictures that direct our focus away from God. Rather, it is things material, like money, jewelry, clothes, drugs, fast cars, big houses, or things immaterial, like power, prestige, and fame, that stand between us and God. Even another person can distract us from God.

When I was in elementary school, I greatly admired one of the nuns. Her name was Sister Lucille Agnes. She was wonderful. She was perfect. I made it a point to see her and to interact with her as often as I possibly could. I thought about her all the time. I even attended 6a.m. mass on weekdays just so I could see her. So, I decided to follow in her footsteps, and I entered the convent in the 9th grade as an "Aspirant." I didn't feel "called," though I said I did. I didn't even want to teach or to nurse, which were the primary services rendered by nuns in those days. I just wanted to be near Sister Lucille. It was very difficult for me at times (because I didn't belong there), but I made it through to graduation. Ironically, Sister Lucille left the convent and subsequently married. (Come to think of it, so did I.) I never thought of her as an idol, but in hindsight, she was one. Clearly, my focus was on her, who worshipped God, and not on worshipping God Himself.

So, what consumes your thoughts? What consumes your time? Where is your focus? What do you "worship?"

As we progress in an increasingly materialistic and selfish age, the following words from Acts remain relevant: "While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:30-31)

Dear God, in the midst of a world full of distractions, may we worship only You. Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, July 29, 2005

Acts 17:1-15

There is one line in this passage that really jumps out at me. It is the second half of verse 6, which in the New Revised Standard Version reads, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,…’

This is how Paul and Silas are described. I wonder. Would anybody describe you or me like that?

Of course the only way to turn something upside down is to take a radically different approach than the status quo. It’s to get out beyond what is safe and convenient and comfortable to confront and challenge people with their need to live life differently.

It turns out this is precisely what the disciples were doing, “saying there is another king [than the emperor] named Jesus.” (vs 7). No wonder the NIV translates vs 6 as "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here,…

Let’s face it; to turn the world upside down is going to require us to cause some trouble. To be quite frank, I can’t imagine that proclaiming that Jesus is king, rather than money or things or political positions or certain points of view is going to go down any better today than it did then. To faithfully preach Christ’s way rather than what has come to be understood as the American Way (dare I even write that?) is going to stir things up just a bit, isn’t it?

So how are you doing on this? How am I? Are we willing to forsake polite respectability and be radically committed to proclaiming our Lord and Savior as God and King? Only when we can honestly answer that question “yes”, friends, will we have any chance of turning the world upside down once again.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Acts 16:25-40

This is a wonderful story, probably familiar to you, in which Paul and Silas had been thrown into prison for defending the gospel (and an exciting story about how God opened the prison doors). Yesterday’s devotional explained the reason for their imprisonment.

Now we find them in prison after being stripped and beaten; “severely flogged” (v23).
At midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. In the past I had pictured some sort of exuberant display, but when I consider what they had just gone through physically, it’s also likely that this was a quiet, fervent church service. It’s also likely that from Paul’s other references to prison that he was praying for a way to proclaim Christ (Phil. 1:12ff), that others around him would be ready to listen to the Gospel.

What God did which made the jailer ready to listen was that God sent an earthquake which shook the foundations of the jail. I’m sure it was scary at first.( Having grown up in California I remember our house shaking during earthquakes). This was shaping up to be an eventful evening for Paul and Silas but things got even more interesting. The jailer prepared to kill himself since he believed his charges would escape and he would then be executed for this. However Paul stopped him from harming himself, telling him that all the prisoners remained in the jail.

The jailer was now really ready to listen. He fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked what he should do to be saved (v. 30).

Sometimes God sends big things and some times small things to prepare us to listen to Him. This week at church we are having VBS each evening. Everywhere I look, I see volunteers being used by God to make children ready to listen to the news of His love. Volunteers of all ages are helping kids, holding kids, feeding kids, telling Bible stories and explaining games, being a friend to the kids, laughing and dancing with kids. Please pray for each of these precious children as the volunteers help them listen to the best news they will ever hear.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Acts 16:16-24

Today's reading stumped me. I read it over and over again. What was it trying to tell me? After about the third time of reading it something spoke to me. This is the glorious thing about scripture, it seems to always have something to say on a deeper level that is not obvious when one reads it quickly or the first time. There always seems to be a pertinent message.

The message of this passage for me revolves around the slave girl. This girl is proclaiming the truth about Paul and Silas although she is demon possessed. Why did a demon announce the truth about Paul and Silas? Why did it annoy Paul so much?

Satan, who is the father of lies, will declare the most important truths when these truths can serve his purpose. If Paul accepted the demon's proclamation, he would appear to be linking the gospel with demon related activities. This would severely damage his message about Christ. Much damage is done to the real servants of Christ by unholy and false preachers of the gospel - Paul could not let this demon damage his reputation and hamper his sharing the truth. Truth and evil do not mix.

Once again the Bible shows us an example of how tricky Satan can be. Paul taught people to believe in Jesus Christ, to forsake sin, and to live godly lives. Satan knew what Paul taught was the truth and he wanted to discredit Paul so others would not take him seriously. Thus Satan tried to link Paul, and thus his teaching, to a mystical fortune teller. Satan knew that if he could link Paul to this girl he would discredit both him and his message. Fortunately, Paul knew this too and now so do we.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Acts 16:6-15

In this passage we find the apostle Paul far from his home in Israel, having traveled overland way up into what is now Turkey. Paul was eager to spread the word about Jesus and to encourage those in far off places who had begun to follow the Lord. Despite Paul’s eagerness and plans, we are told here that the Spirit actually blocked his travel to some inland locations so that Paul came instead to the bustling port city of Troas on the northwest shores of the Aegean. Receiving a vision that urgently beckoned him across the northern Aegean to Macedonia, Paul was able to respond promptly. He set sail to what today is northern Greece, where he traveled and preached. The passage closes with the story of the conversion of Lydia, a wealthy and influential woman who believed in Jesus as a result of Paul’s message and then made her home a base for ministry. Next time you read Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the New Testament, remember that the church there may well have grown out of the ministry at the home of Lydia!

The verses in this little passage in Acts read a little like someone’s travel diary. But under the surface there is the dramatic tale of a man very aware of God’s direction and inspiration for his mission in distant locations, seemingly without a homeward glance. The writer of Acts does not tell us how or why the Spirit blocked Paul’s ministry in Bithynia and the province of Asia. We only know that as a result, Paul was available to cross the Aegean to minister in places like Philippi. And once he was called there, he did not hesitate to go.

Do I look for the Spirit to lead me as I go about my life? Do I expect and seek opportunities to let what I know about Jesus spill out of me for the good of others? When I regret that my faith is not as firm as Paul’s, I do well to remember that his answer to Jesus was “yes” while mine is usually “maybe,” at best. Paul’s faith was fired and strengthened in obedient service. Despite many adverse circumstances, joy and confidence fill Paul’s various New Testament letters. Aha! Paul discovered that Jesus was not kidding when he promised “abundant” life to those who would follow him without reserve! How can we, how can I, be poised to recognize the Spirit’s lead and follow it whole-heartedly for love of Jesus and love of others? Let us pray for those from Saint Matthew’s who are leaving next Sunday for the Crow Reservation in Montana. They have said “yes” to this opportunity to serve. May many they touch know Jesus’ love through their obedience. And may those who serve also be blessed.

Karen Strong

Monday, July 25, 2005

Acts 15:36 - 16:5

Once again today’s text brackets part of a longer story. The longer story – in Acts and the letters of Paul and Peter – gives us the truer, deeper meaning to the events in this text.

Paul and Barnabas, in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, had collaborated closely for some time. They had taught Christians in Antioch, and they had planted the good news of Jesus in cities around the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, however, they came to a disagreement. A cousin of Barnabas – John Mark – had accompanied them on that church-planting journey. Yet he left them before the journey was completed. Planning a second trip to those young churches, Paul and Barnabas differed on whether to include John Mark. Paul did not want to bring him. Barnabas did. Paul and Barnabas disagreed so strongly that they parted company. Paul took Silas on the second trip. Barnabas went with John Mark to Cyprus.

Such conflict does not seem to represent the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Yet it was not the sum total of the story. It was not the end of the story as God was authoring it.

On this second journey Paul met Timothy. Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian; his father, Greek, and not a believer. Timothy was young – probably in his late teens – but gifted in faith. In the grace and power of the Spirit, and under Paul’s mentoring, Timothy became a true leader in the early church (1 Timothy 4:11-14).

John Mark eventually became close to Peter (1 Peter 5:13). He wrote a gospel (“of Mark”) in the New Testament. Paul later came to respect John Mark so much that Paul requested John Mark to be near him in his last, martyrdom-ending imprisonment (2 Timothy 4:11).

It is the very nature and purpose of God to bring good out of evil, to redeem people and situations from wrongdoing and conflict. This is the story of God’s salvation of a fallen and broken world. It is the story of God’s saving love in Jesus. It was Paul’s, Barnabas’s, Timothy’s, and John Mark’s story. God wants it to be yours and mine. Let us live in God’s story faithfully and fully – becoming, in the grace and power of the Spirit, the people God desires us to be.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Romans 12:9-21

I've been listening to the song If We Are The Body by Casting Crowns a bit ever since CreationFest. The song describes the sad state in our churches where we don't welcome strangers with open arms. The two verses are:

It's crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces
The girls teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road

Today's passage moved me, especially after listening to this song and, sadly, even looking around our church and youth group.

Last week my cousin was up visiting. Thursday evening she came with me to Starbucks and very, very few people in the group introduced themselves to her. Even fewer made her really feel welcome.

Earlier that day Caitlyn Tracy (and all the Tracy's) opened their home and horses up to us. Phylicia had really wanted to go horseback riding, but we hadn't found anywhere near here that would be fun for a teenager. For those that don't know her, Caitlyn has been riding horses for years, taking lessons and is generally very good at it. I gave them a call seeing if they had suggestions of places to go, and Caitlyn jumped at the chance to let Phylicia ride horses with her.

I did find out later that Caitlyn was a little nervous about it, thinking it might be ok to let Phylicia ride for a little while then hang out with another friend. In the end Caitlyn and Phylicia both had a great time and began a good friendship. Both of them took a chance and tried working in harmony with one-another. Caitlyn didn't let her own experience with horses let her ignore Phylicia and her inexperience. At Starbucks that night Phylicia and Caitlyn were joined at the hip.

So often we ignore the person who wants to be ignored. Someone comes into the room and stands off in the corner... how often do we say hello to them?

The beauty of this passage is that God is telling us that we are his body. We must not hate, but instead show peace and love for those who treat us badly. We must remember that no matter how God has gifted us in this life, we should always welcome and support those who may not have it as well as we do. But, more than anything, we must remember that God want's everyone in His kingdom. Why do we think that excludes those we don't like?


Saturday, July 23, 2005

Acts 15:22-35

The Council of Jerusalem: Decision

AD 50: the Church at the crossroads. A critical, fundamental issue threatened to divide the young Church utterly. If not resolved, the further spread of the Gospel might be curtailed entirely. All the surviving apostles (those not yet martyred for their faith) went up to Jerusalem.

At the council, the matter was debated at length, and although the arguments are not specifically described, it must have been argued hotly on both sides of the argument. Must the Gentiles be circumcised (and adhere to all other matters of Jewish law) to be saved, to be accepted into the fellowship of believers?

Finally, Peter spoke with conviction of all that he had seen—the Gentiles indeed had received the marks of the Spirit based upon their declaration of faith. And James, the brother of Jesus who had not believed until after the Resurrection, but who now led the Jerusalem church, and therefore might be expected to adhere more to the conservative view—echoed the voice of total acceptance.

There was no vote. There was therefore no winning side, no losing side. The need for “sacred surgery” was not to be required, it was not even mentioned. But the Gentiles would need to respect the sensitivities of the Jews in key areas that would have made it impossible for them to sit down to a meal together, unless they were observed.

“It seemed good to the Holy Sprit and to us.” God is not on both sides of an argument. God may be against both sides of an argument, in which case both sides need to get on God’s side. And it seems that that is what happened here. They all sought the wisdom of God, and God gave them wisdom at a time and place where they needed that wisdom above all things. The news from the Council was sent forth without delay, and it was received with great joy.

In our American civil institutions, we value democracy as a means for expressing the will of the people. Minority views have a measure of protection, but at the end it is the majority that carries the day. This model has been imported into the mechanics of Church government, and it inevitably brings with it the weaknesses of our human nature. We would do well to consider the unanimity of this Council, and how it was achieved: they sought the will of the Spirit, not merely individually, but as a whole body. They considered the impact on the whole body, not simply on some individuals. God was doing a new thing, and all of them saw it—without exception. And being of one mind, they attained and formulated their consensus.

May we too seek and find that in our day.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Acts 15:1-11

It is a fundamental truth of Christian faith that God loves radically and unconditionally. A wonderful nineteenth century hymn text by Frederick William Faber put it this way: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea….For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.” This was clear about God before Jesus. Numerous references and promises in our Old Testament attest to God’s desire to gather all people into his kingdom. Then God came to us uniquely and definitively in Jesus, in a new covenant or testament, and in Jesus we know most clearly and deeply the radical and unconditional love of God for all.

This truth has sometimes been difficult for followers of Jesus to understand and live out in their own lives. Too often we want to draw lines to exclude, or we want to set up conditions others must first meet to gain acceptance in the kingdom that we have already entered by God’s grace.

Ah, but there is the rub, as they say. We have entered God’s kingdom by grace, by grace in Jesus. We did not enter by first meeting exclusive standards or conditions, whether religious, moral, social, political, or ethnic. God showed us radical and unconditional love in Jesus. By the grace of that love, and only by the grace of that love, are we gathered in to be the people of God, to be citizens of the kingdom, brothers and sisters in Jesus.

This truth is what we see wrestled with and finally affirmed in today’s passage in Acts. Some in the early church thought Gentiles (non-Jews) should fulfill Jewish legal-religious requirements to be considered worthy of the kingdom. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter testified that God, through the Holy Spirit, had extended his love to Gentiles without their having to meet those requirements. To paraphrase Peter, “We and they are all saved by the grace of God in Jesus, by grace alone, not by anything we must or even can do!”

This is good news, good news indeed, from God, for us – and for all people in Jesus!

Gregory Strong

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Acts 15:1-11

One of the great things about the Bible is that it is so real. Yes, the book of Acts includes some pretty amazing stuff about what God was doing in the early church (thousand of people added to a local church in one day! Undeniable miracles! Worship that shook the very foundations of the building where they were meeting! People’s lives remarkably changed! Imagine being part of a church like that!)

But then we come to a passage like this, and we see a church with all the blemishes that many of us know so well. Division. Power struggles. Doctrinal confusion. Clinging to the past. Refusal to change.

And remember—we’re not talking minor issues here, or “way out” churches, or questionable people. We’re talking salvation through Christ by grace alone. We’re talking the apostles and elders (!!!) who are doing the debating, and who still seem to be struggling with what following Jesus really means. And you’ll notice how the disagreement is described as “much debate”. We’re talking a vigorous, profound disagreement here.

We all long for pure churches; for churches that get faithfulness to Jesus right. Oh how we long for such a church! But it is probably worth noting, as far as I can tell, that such a church has pretty much never existed (despite claims to the contrary!). Even Jesus acknowledges this in his kingdom parable of the wheat and the weeds.

And why should that surprise us? We are, after all, fallen human beings. Redeemed by grace, yes, but certainly not perfect. At least I’m not.

So maybe we should be a little more patient with our churches (and please believe me, I am writing this as more to myself than anybody else). Maybe we should be quicker to acknowledge our own blind spots. Maybe we should see in the church’s faults and failings not so much the need to take things into our own hands, but to trust that God will work in our churches-- just like He did in the early church so many years ago.

Acts 14:19-28

Our reading today is extremely powerful. If you have not read it please do so. I trust you will find it as powerful as I do.

Today's reading begins with the stoning of Paul. Because he was preaching the Gospel, Jews from Antioch and Iconium tracked Paul down, stoned him, and left him for dead. After this Paul got up and went back into the city and continued to preach the Gospel. What great commitment Paul had. Can you imagine doing anything where a group of people hated it, and you, so much that they were willing to kill you for it and after they tried you just continued doing it anyway? Why would you continue to do it in the face of people willing to kill you? It is only because you know it is the will of God that you do it and with God behind you there is nothing on this earth that should stand in your way. After all, compared to the promise to live for all eternity in a peace beyond our understanding, what price is too high to pay in this very short life of ours to gain that promise?

I fully realize that this Bible lesson today is an extreme example. However, God gives each of us tasks to do in our lives. God's will for our lives is not always convenient for us. Many times we feel too busy or have other priorities to do the things we hear God calling us to do. When I am faced with such a situation, it helps me to remember Paul's commitment and to recall his action. Remember to live a life modeled after Jesus, we must walk the talk.

It is true that God's will requires us to do tasks that are not always convenient, easy, and comfortable. However, it was not convenient, easy, or comfortable for Jesus to go to the cross for us!

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Monday, July 18, 2005

Acts 13:44-52

Today’s reading begins in the middle of a story. As is usually the case when we read the Bible, the meaning of this reading gains clarity and depth in the context of the whole story, beginning in verse 1 of this chapter.

Led by the Holy Spirit, the church in Antioch (in Syria) sent Paul and Barnabas to other cities to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Eventually, they arrived in a different Antioch (in Pisidia). As was their custom, Paul and Barnabas attended services at the local synagogue. One Sabbath, synagogue officials invited them to speak to the congregation – a common invitation for visiting rabbis or teachers. In response, Paul and Barnabas spoke about God’s saving purposes, first among the people of Israel and then in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The hearers – Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism – asked them to come back the next Sabbath to speak further about these matters. This is where today’s passage begins – on that next Sabbath.

As it happened, many others also came to hear Paul and Barnabas. This angered some in the congregation. They spoke harshly against Paul and Barnabas and against the message of the good news.

What a fearsome thing to set oneself against God’s purposes and actions! God had acted lovingly toward the people of Israel, for their good and the good of all. God intended them to be a light for the world, to bring salvation to all peoples. Now, many of them set themselves against God, against his purposes and actions.

What a blessed thing to align oneself boldly with God’s purposes and action! Paul and Barnabas became what God intended his people to be – a light for the world, agents of salvation for all. Others in Antioch also aligned themselves boldly with God, with his purposes and actions.

These are the alternatives we see in this passage – opposition to God or alignment with God. These are what faced the people of the first century in Antioch. The same alternatives face us in the twenty-first century in Sterling. Will we set ourselves against God, against his purposes and actions? Or, will we align ourselves with God, with his purposes and actions?

Gregory Strong

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Romans 11:33-12:2

I was at CreationFest a few weeks ago (a 4 day music festival with lots and lots of loud bands and great times). One of the stories I heard from Taylor Leach was the following:

Hey, look what I've got? (She then showed me a quarter with her name on it). While we were at the store we sat on a bench for a little while next to this really cool youth minister. He took a pencil and passed it through a quarter I gave him. He also showed us this really cool card trick, it was awesome!

Knowing Taylor's mom Jodie was there, I told her I'd heard about the "magician" youth minister. Here was her version of the story:

(Jodie began by rolling her eyes)
Yeah, that guy was really scary. He had his hair spiked and dyed orange, and his fingernails were painted orange. Plus he was dressed really radically, he just was weird looking.

Later Taylor agreed that the guy was kind of scary looking, but all she really remembered was that some guy performed magic and gave her a story she'll never forget. How about that for a way to bring someone to Christ?

Today's passage speaks to exactly this. We may see things in the world which are really, really weird. Honestly, we may see things which completely put us off. Regardless of how we look or how we act against the norm, when we offer our bodies to Christ He will use them. He'll use them in amazing ways to perform miracles.

As for me, maybe I should learn magic :)


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Acts 13:26-43

In this section of Acts, Luke records Paul's preaching in Pisidian Antioch: I have good news! God's promise of salvation has been fulfilled for ALL through the resurrection of Jesus! But beware; do not reject God's work in Christ. Believe!

Thousands of years later, Paul's warning is still necessary, even to professed believers.

The degree to which one believes is visible through his or her actions. With nonbelief, there is often blatant sin -- fraud, embezzlement, murder, etc. When belief is weak, there is the potential for casual sin -- lying, using bad language, etc. But when belief is true, there is a sincere attempt to obey God's Commandments -- all of them!

The degree to which people believe is also visible as death approaches. I often recall my friends from Sommerset, Maria, Edna, Arline, Lucille, Mary, Lucy, and Eve. They strongly believed that God's promise was fulfilled in Jesus, and they lived their lives accordingly. They worshipped together. They supported each other. And when the time came to depart from this life and to enter into the next, they were at peace. They were ready. I contrast that with Julio, my parents' neighbor in Texas. Julio is a baptized and confirmed Christian. He isn't expected to live beyond next week. Unfortunately, the illness that attacked his body exposed the weakness of his belief. As his body grew weaker, the doubt which heretofore had been subtle, a shadow, an afterthought, suddenly emerged and became strong, and it grew until it crushed his fragile belief. Now, instead of joyfully anticipating an eternity with God, Julio is angry, bitter, and alone.

But it's not too late for Julio. If you are reading this, you probably don't need help with your belief. However, I'm sure you know of someone who, like Julio, needs help with his or hers.

Dear God, please help us minister to those who believe weakly or not at all. We pray especially for Julio, that he may regain his belief, reconcile with You, and die in peace. Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, July 15, 2005

Acts 13:13-25

I am on vacation and this morning the weather forecast read, "temperatures ranging from the 60's on the coast to 100 degrees well inland" which sounded a little funny to me, but I am in the San Francisco area. For a break from Virginia summer heat, visiting San Francisco in the summer is like buying an airline ticket to sit in the frige.

A cool breeze is comforting and it's comforting to my spirit to read this account of how God has worked to reach out, through history, to each of us. This movement of the Gospel in to "all the world" started with a prayer meeting (Acts 13:1-2) and I like the thought of my fellow believers and I being spiritual descendants of that prayer meeting. It's a great reminder to me to pray for the spread of the Gospel. Also, God spoke to those gathered while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, and this reminds me to be sensitive to listen to the voice of God.

At a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul recounted how God was at work in the history of the Jews. Circumstances did not often look promising, but God had promised; and He was at work, for example while the Jews were in Egypt and during the Exodus. God's goal was met in the coming of Jesus and then the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. What a joy to have this Companion to comfort us in life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Acts 13:1-12

In today’s reading, we have Saul (soon to be referred to as “Paul”) and Barnabas being sent out on their first missionary journey to the Gentiles. It represents the clear leading of the Holy Spirit that one of the things the Church is called to do is take the Gospel out of local congregations to those who have not yet heard it.

This outward drive should come as no surprise to followers of Jesus. Our Lord—the one whose life we seek to emulate—is the one who left the comfort and privilege of heaven to proclaim God’s love to those alienated and cut off from Him.

Can those who commit themselves to being transformed into the image of God in Christ do any less? The little band of Christians found at the beginning of today’s reading, so focused on God through fasting and worship, concludes the answer is no. They too must reach out to the world around them.

It is the principle here as much as the specific action that is instructive. Faithfully following Jesus requires us to reach out in love to those who do not yet know him.

It puzzles me that so few Christians make this a priority in their lives. How is it that we who see ourselves as deeply committed to Jesus Christ are not actively and intentionally engaged in evangelism?

When was the last time you shared your faith with someone outside a church? With a neighbor? A co worker? A friend? How often, if at all, does that happen?

If our answer to simple questions like these leads to the inescapable conclusion that we are not regularly and routinely commending Jesus to people in the world around us…well, it seems to me that we who take Scripture seriously would do well to ask ourselves why that is…and what we are going to do about it.

Acts 12:18-25

Our reading today, regarding the death of Herod, has an extremely strong message for us all. It has to do with sin and judgment.

Many heathen princes claimed divine honors. However, it is a far more irreverent act in Herod's case to accept such honors without rebuking the blasphemy. After all, Herod knew the word of, and worshipped, God. So why would he do it?

In our reading today we see Herod being pompous and puffed with pride. Herod lets his emotions and the circumstances get the best of him. In verse 22 when the people called him a god he took it all in and probably enjoyed the moment. Herod commits a sin of pride. Pride is a serious sin that can distort one's ability to think clearly and to live in the will of God. Herod thinks too much of himself and loses the perspective of God's law.

Pride can do this to any of us. When we get too full of ourselves our mind focuses more and more of its energy on our self. As the mind focuses more inwardly, it loses the ability to focus outwardly. Two of the commandments that Jesus gave us are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus demonstrated leadership by serving others. Pride destroys our ability to follow the teachings of Jesus.

God chose to punish Herod immediately for his sin of pride. Just because God has not chosen to punish us immediately does not mean He did not notice. God does not immediately punish all sin but He has promised to bring us all to judgment one day.

Our reading today is about the sin of pride, but it is applicable to any sin. Sin can keep any of us from fulfilling God's plan for our life. Accept Jesus Christ's offer of help and forgiveness today. No one can afford to wait.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Acts 12:1-7

While today’s passage continues to recount the growth of the early Church, it also reminds us that that growth was not without great cost. We read of the persecution of those who belonged to the church. Afterwards, James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, is killed by the sword. Apparently, this escalation of persecution and violence so pleased the Jews and Herod that Peter is also seized to be put to death.

It is the night before his execution and Peter is surrounded by guards, bound in chains and secured in prison. There is no reason not to believe he would be put to death in the morning. The killing of James, which was apparently done in private, emboldens Herod to make Peter’s execution public.

"…but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."

Due to this unceasing prayer, we see the miraculous delivery of Peter from the most effective means available at that time of securing man’s plans. Not only did God achieve the impossible but He was also gracious to the church in the almost comical manner He revealed the answer to their prayer. After Peter describes his escape and before he heads on his way, he instructs them to "go and tell others…."

It’s a simple instruction and probably a needless one at that for the sheer magnitude of the miracle would have dictated telling everyone they met about it. Perhaps, however, it is there for our benefit as a reminder to let others know when we encounter answered prayer. Surely, the knowledge of Peter’s escape in answer to prayer emboldened the early Church. Likewise, relaying the circumstances of our answered prayers will embolden the faith of our fellow Christians. Peter is, in effect, saying, "Not only is prayer powerful, but so is telling others about it."

So, what was your last answered prayer? And who have you told about it?

Mark Vereb

Monday, July 11, 2005

Acts 11:19-30

Today’s passage in Acts consists of a “newsy” account of the continuing growth of the early Church. Persecution led to dispersal of many Jesus-followers from Jerusalem to other places. Where they went, they told the good news to other Jews. Consequently, many committed their life to Jesus. In Antioch, some followers even told Greeks, who turned to Jesus! Leaders of the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to check on developments. Eventually, Barnabas brought Saul (Paul) to Antioch to help teach the new believers. When a famine occurred, Jesus-followers in Antioch sent assistance to believers in Jerusalem.

This newsy passage is part of a longer section that records a matter of immense significance – namely, that God’s saving purpose is for the whole world, for all people, not just for one place, for one people. This is shown in God’s offering of the good news of Jesus to Greeks – that is, to Gentiles, people outside of Judaism. The idea of God’s favor toward Gentiles was problematic, at best, in Judaism. The first disciples of Jesus, who were Jewish, came to understand and embrace this, but not without struggle in mind, heart, and spirit!

Two key principles of the good news of Jesus that we see in Acts, then, are extension and connection.

God extends the grace of the good news of Jesus to all. In the world, we find numerous ways to define and limit boundaries of belonging, affection, and good will – language, ethnicity, gender, social class, kinship, country, and more. God limits himself to none of these boundaries! In Jesus, God lovingly acts to save any and all into his kingdom.

God connects all who believe in Jesus into one people. The church or community of believers is for us, but never only for us. It is local and particular, but never only local and particular. Truly, our brothers and sisters consist of those whom God gives us in Jesus from every language, ethnicity, gender, class, kinship, country, and more – across time and around the world!

May we, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, by word and deed live in God’s kingdom boundaries – the ever-widening boundaries of the good news of Jesus Christ, beyond all human limits and barriers.

Gregory Strong

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Acts 11:1-18

The vision came unsought, unleashed bizarre
Menagerie wrapped in a linen sheet
Suspended, then descending from the stars
Whence came a voice that bade me "kill and eat."
Defile myself? Oh may it never be
That I should dine on meat from unclean beasts!
Again the voice, again insistently:
What God has cleansed is worthy of the feast.
Three men were at the door with invitations
To go to Caesarea, take a meal
With people unlike me, beneath my station,
Unclean, uncouth, the promise unrevealed
To them; but then I knew--and still I hear it:
I must not hinder those who share that Spirit.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Acts 10:34-48

This is the account of Peter at the house of Cornelius. These were exciting and mind-stretching days for the young believers. Peter is gracious to admit that he formerly did not associate with Gentiles (v. 28) but that God had showed him that no man should be called unclean.

Secondly, Cornelius prayed to God and the reason God revealed Himself to Cornelius was that God heard his pray and remembered his gifts to the poor. I like this reminder to myself that God loves it when we remember the poor (I am sorry, God; you say very little about me spending money on myself or my house except to say for me to fix my eyes on "things above" (Col. chapter 3).)

So, Peter then addresses those at the house of Cornelius. I love these speeches in the book of Acts which the disciples deliver as they are so clear about Jesus. Peter does not say, "Cornelius and friends, it's all good!!" Just do the best you can and be good people and give to the poor like Cornelius does!" No, Peter launches into the message of Christ and the cross. Jesus, he says is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead and to give forgiveness of sins.

Words like "judge" and "sins" are hard words to deliver and to hear these days. I am so glad that Peter was touched by the hand of God and for his courage. Many would like to believe that Jesus is one way but Scripture does not give us that option. Jesus says, "I am the way”.

Let us be humbly grateful for the gift of salvation we have received. Let us also be courageous in sharing that gift, even as Peter was before us.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Acts 10:17-33

You will remember that today’s reading comes after Peter’s vision of unclean food descending from heaven accompanied by the command, “Rise and eat!” In the verses for today, we find Peter trying to figure out what to make of this vision.

We are told that he was “wondering” what it meant; the NRSV says that Peter was “puzzled” by it. Just a couple verses further we see that he was “still thinking about the vision”; turning it over and over in his head.

Two thousand years later, we might well think the message was obvious, and wonder ourselves why he struggled so with its meaning. Yet what God was asking Peter to do was so far out of the box that it never even entered Peter’s mind.

So, while Peter was pondering, God was acting. He brings the answer right to Peter’s door in the form of three men and an invitation. Suddenly Peter gets it; “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

I wonder how many times this scenario has been repeated in the lives of God’s people and the church they constitute. How many times are we wondering about a word from God when God is already acting?

Is it really so hard to see what God is doing in the world, and what He expects of you and of me? And yet so often our life as individuals, and the life of the larger church to which we belong, is marked more by inactivity than bold initiatives to proclaim God’s love for all the world to hear. Too often we’re not very good at getting beyond the church walls, or even making God’s love known to everybody within them.

Might I be so audacious as to ask you if you are clear about God’s vision for you? I’m not talking about some general and diffuse understanding that amounts to no more than comfortable life as usual. Do you know what He wants you to be doing right here and right now?

And then perhaps the tougher question still:

Are you doing it?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Acts 10:1-16

At first glance, at least at my first glance, it would not appear that our reading for today has much to tell us. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, has a vision to send for Peter. Peter has a vision that would indicate that it is alright to eat almost any animal. This frees us from the Jewish law outlined in Leviticus 11.

Now, at least from my perspective, I am very happy that God gave Peter this vision as I enjoy many types of foods. But there has to be more to today's reading than just that. Of course there is much more.

Cornelius is an example of God's willingness to use extraordinary means to reach those who desire to know Him. This willingness is not limited to Jews, as Cornelius is clearly a gentile. This fact is one of the great turning points in the early church. Gentiles are to be admitted into fellowship with Christ too. This provides proof that God sent His Son into the world because He loved the entire world. Thus, Cornelius' sends for Peter so Peter can share the Gospel with Cornelius. Cornelius will then be able to have a greater relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ.

OK I see the message that Cornelius' vision is meant to convey, but what about Peter's vision? According to Jewish law, people who ate unclean, or forbidden, food where themselves unclean. Peter's vision was God's way of removing Peter's prejudices against Gentiles. God was telling Peter that he should not look upon Gentiles as inferior or as people God did not want to save. God was preparing Peter to share the Gospel with Cornelius and for his future work of sharing the Gospel with all people.

Today's reading has much to share with us.
God reaches those who earnestly want to know Him.
The Gospel is for all people.
There are people everywhere eager to receive the Gospel.
God knows the tasks that are before us and how to prepare us.

Wishing you much success in your walk with Christ,
Richard Leach

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Acts 9:32-43

Normally, I would be writing about today’s lesson. Specifically, I would be focusing on how Peter’s actions begin to fulfill Jesus’ words in John 14:12-13. I would also be exhorting us to continue fulfilling those words today. However this is not a normal day (for me anyway). So in the words of professors and academic writers everywhere, I leave that "as an exercise for the reader."

This is not a normal day because tomorrow I celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary. It doesn’t seem possible to me that it can actually be two full decades since I was driving down a country road to "make it to the church on time!" But, as I look back over all the blessings I have received since, and because of, that day, it’s incredible to think that so much can be packed into such a short time!

Those blessings start with the unique circumstances that brought Debbie and me together and continue through sharing with her the pride of being parents to four wonderful children. Most important though, is the knowledge that we share a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. I honestly can’t think of any better way to have spent the last twenty years than to grow together in our knowledge and love of God as well as our knowledge and love for each other.

Lately, as it has dawned on us that the hectic days of scouts, sports and music events are numbered, Debbie and I have begun discussing what we would like to do in our empty-nest years. While we have no intention of rushing our children’s lives, I must admit to being a little excited about what the future may hold for us as just a couple again. If the next twenty years are anything like the last twenty, I will truly be a blessed man.

Happy Anniversary, Sweetie! I love you!

Mark Vereb

Monday, July 04, 2005

Acts 9:19b-31

Saul had been fervent in devotion to his traditions. In his zeal, he had vigorously suppressed the sect of Jesus-followers. Luke portrayed this succinctly by introducing Saul at the end of Acts 7 as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen. It is little wonder then that followers of Jesus in Damascus and Jerusalem were skeptical – to put it mildly! – that Saul was now one of them. After all, Saul – “breathing … murderous threats” – had set out for Damascus to arrest Jewish believers in Jesus. He intended to transport them back to Jerusalem for trial.

Yet Jesus had other plans! Jesus literally and figuratively arrested Saul in his tracks. On the road to Damascus, Saul’s life ended as he knew it when he encountered the risen and ascended Jesus. Saul left Jerusalem an enemy to Jesus. He entered Damascus a disciple of Jesus. From there, in newness of life, he went out into the world to love and serve Jesus.

A key thread in this passage, then, is transformation – radical change of life through relationship with Jesus. This reminds me of an article I recently read. The author wrote insightfully of this very truth, that Christian faith fundamentally involves transformation. The author further observed that we often underestimate God’s transforming power. We live as if we cannot change, as if God cannot change us. All too often, all too willfully, we assert, “That’s just the way I am. I can’t change.”

Yet we see in Acts that transformation – radical, comprehensive, life-stopping, life-starting change – is what happened to Saul. Eventually, he even took on a name change – Saul to Paul – as part of the transformation from his old life against Jesus to his new life in Jesus.

Transformation is what God desires for all of us. God, through the Holy Spirit, intends to birth Jesus’ new life in us! I know that I underestimate, even resist, God’s transforming power. It is to my shame, regret, and sorrow. God intends only good for us! Where I am set against Jesus, may God arrest me and change me, radically and comprehensively, to love and serve Jesus. May this be so for all of us.

Gregory Strong

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Romans 5:1-11

The youth group just returned a few hours ago from a trip to CreationFest in Pennsylvania. This is a 3 1/2 day Christian music festival. We listen to music which runs almost constantly from 9am to midnight. We hear some amazing bands and have some world-class speakers.

This event takes place on a converted farm which has porta-potties, camp sites without water and electric and some showers (ours were a 15 minute walk from the campsite and with a wait, very few had a shower). It was very sunny, somewhat humid and a bit warm (mid 80's, which gets hot when AC isn't available). This really is camping out, and not the spa treatment you get camping at a camp site. On top of it all I got sick Monday and the cold stuck with me through the trip.

This passage in Romans really hits home when I think of the trip...

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Romans 5:3-4

We suffered (man did we suffer, I didn't brush my teeth once, I feel bad for the others) but I saw some amazing perseverance as well. Christine Merola spent the entire week at one stage or another listening to music and speakers; when the Newsboys concert was delayed 1/2 an hour, making for a very late night, everyone stayed through to the end. In the end the Newsboys moved everyone in our group, even when my throat hurt so badly I couldn't speak and my body was so exhausted I wanted to collapse, I felt the energy and drive to jump and dance with our group through two songs. It was well worth the effort.

Everyone who went to the concert grew as individuals and in their relationships with Christ. One person who came and is not a Christian found comfort and some real excitement in the Newsboys and Toby Mac. She didn't commit her life to Christ, but did begin listening to His word and thinking about coming back to the faith. Kate, Amy and Kim grew a passing acquaintance into a strong friendship and even a bond that I believe will continue past Creation. There's no question that the character of each person grew significantly.

And lastly hope. I don't think a single one of the 18 of us had ever hoped for a shower more in our lives! Seriously though, our faith grew and there was a strong understanding that no matter how much we mess up Jesus made the supreme sacrifice and will accept us in Heaven.

+Tom Leary

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Acts 9:10-19

In this section of Acts, God tells Ananias to go to Saul and to lay his hands on him so that Saul may regain his sight. Ananias, however, is reluctant because of Saul's notorious reputation in his treatment of Christians. "Go!" God says, "for he is an instrument whom I have chosen..." Ananias obeys, and ministers to Saul, who regains his sight and receives the Holy Spirit

How would you respond to God if He spoke to you directly and asked you to do something risky? Outside your comfort zone? Alone? Would you dare to question God? Would you wait for assurances before acting

What if God asked you to do something that was well within your comfort zone, using the very gifts He'd given you, but which would require definite blocks of your time? Would you say, "I'm too busy. Can't someone else do it

It is unlikely that you will directly hear God's voice, as did Ananias. God will, more than likely, speak to you through the voice of a friend, a parent, a teacher, a priest, or perhaps through your own thoughts.

Is God nudging you? Whispering in your ear? Shouting at the top of His lungs to get your attention? Have you stopped to listen, to hear what He is asking of you?

Could God be asking, "Please

"...invite a friend to a Sunday service."

"...write an article or a poem for the newsletter

"...minister in My name to the elderly and frail in special homes."

"...minister in My name to the sick, the lonely, the homeless."

"...teach My word to your children."

" prepare My house for worship. There are many ways."

"...become a link in the Prayer Chain, or join the Sunday evening prayer group."

" and find your gifts."

"...share your gifts within My Body and to grow My Body."

Dear God, help me to listen to You, to hear what You would have me do. Grant me the grace to always say, without question or doubt or reluctance, "Yes, here I am Lord!" Amen.

Martha Olson

Friday, July 01, 2005

Acts 9:1-9

This is the recounting of the conversion of Saul. Like in the story of Moses’ calling; God intervened in a dramatic way to call one of His servants. Really, He calls each of us every day, if we are listening.

Perhaps God had to go to great lengths (Saul saw a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus) because Saul was causing so much pain and suffering to the Christians he sought out. With Paul around it was a difficult time to be a Christian. A lot of people were very brave in those days. Paul sought Christians out, arrested and jailed them. Paul was present and in full agreement when Stephen was stoned (Acts 8:1). I think of how Paul looked back on this, after he became a Christian; with regret and sadness at the death of a fellow Christian. Paul himself was later was arrested and jailed because he followed Christ.

Likewise, we should not forget those who suffer for Christ now. We can remember them in prayer and giving. We can pray for each other as we live for Christ at school and work (and sometimes even more difficult, at home). We don’t have to suffer persecution usually, but I think the subtle ways we must sacrifice for Christ are hard also (sacrificing material things, time, etc). Sometimes God prompts me in small ways, and I try to ignore the prompting, rationalizing that it’s a very small thing He is asking.

God bless you this week and may we all sacrifice for Him in big and small ways.