Saturday, August 30, 2008

Acts 11:1-18

A vision came to me, the most bizarre
Menagerie was on a linen sheet
Suspended, then descending from the stars.
I heard a voice commanding: "Kill and eat!"
Defile myself? Oh may it never be!
I cannot taste meat of unclean beasts!
Again the voice, again, insistently:
"What God calls 'Clean' is fit to grace your feast."
Three men then, at the door brought invitation
To go to Caesarea, share a meal
With people unlike me, not of 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.
Is it possible even today that God could show us something that would shock us?
How would we react?
What would we do?
May we pray, and listen too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Acts 10:1-16

In today's reading, Luke provides us with two stories. The first is the story of Cornelius calling for Peter and the second is Peter's vision. Let's have a quick look at both of these stories and attempt to understand why Luke shared them with us.

A common question regarding salvation is, what will happen to the people who have never heard about Christ? In today's first story, we are told about a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was not a follower of Christ - in fact he may never have heard of Jesus Christ. However, Cornelius was seeking God as we are told in verse 2, "He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly." As a result, God sends Peter to Cornelius to tell him and his household about Christ. Cornelius is an example of someone who found God by sincerely seeking Him. This story illustrates that God will answer the sincere prayers of those who seek Him by sending the right person, or the right information, to the seeker at the right time. This goes for a Roman soldier or for any of us today.

The second story in today's reading has to do with a vision God gave to Peter. During the time when Peter lived, Jewish law contained strict dietary rules. These rules made it difficult for Jews to eat with Gentiles without risking defilement. In fact, along the vein of you are what you eat, Jews often thought of Gentiles as being unclean. But verse 15 clearly countermands this perception, "... Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." This vision showed Peter that he should not look upon Gentiles as inferior people whom God would not save. This vision cleared Peter's conscience and made him realize that he not only could go into a Gentile's home to preach the Gospel, but that he should go in.

So in today's reading we have two stories. The first corroborating the old saying, seek and ye shall find, and the second telling us that God made everything and everyone and thus there is no place we should fear going to spread the Word.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Acts 9:1-9

The conversion of Saul is probably one of the most written-about Bible passages. This is where you can truly see the omnipotence of God. This was no simple conversion. This particular conversion would change the course of the new church.

One of the reasons it was so revolutionary was due to the person Saul had become. He was a highly respected and highly feared member of the Sanhedrin. He was a devout Jew. His speeches and actions against the new Christians were designed not just to give this new religion a hard time, but to annihilate it. He was purposefully out to kill all of the Christians. Due to his standing not only in Jerusalem, but his reputation throughout the region, one outgrowth of his reign of terror was that he caused the new Christians, including the apostles, to scatter further away. This resulted in a faster and larger spread of Chrisianity. Also, due to his notoriety, his conversion was big, big news. It was like getting free TV commercial time during the Super Bowl half time show.

This was one of the most unique (if not THE most unique) conversion in the Bible. The apostles' "selection" by Jesus was entirely different and perhaps not even a conversion since Jesus was just starting his ministry when the apostles were selected. They really had no idea how their lives would change. In fact, they thought Jesus was just a little crazy when he told them about his pending death and resurrection. Paul immediately knew the consequences of his conversion and those consequences were iconoclastic.

There are many other points and issues that can be raised about this passage. (One of my favorite questions is what happened to the two guys that were traveling with Saul to Damascus? Weren't they Christian-haters, too? Did they convert with Saul?). That is why whole volumes have been written about it. It is my prayer and hope that in pondering this passage, your insights will help you develop a relationship with Christ that is just as unique and special as the relationship Jesus ultimately had with Paul.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Acts 8:14-25

Acts is such a wonderful book. It gives us so many examples of how a church should run and how we should live. Today's reading is no exception.

Have you heard of the word simony? Do you know its definition? Well today's reading is from where this word comes. Merriam-Webster defines simony as, "the buying or selling of a church office or ecclesiastical preferment." In today's reading a man named Simon tries to buy the ability to launch the Holy Spirit in people - "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." (verse 19).

Of course Peter rebukes Simon and tells him, "You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness..." (verses 21, 22). Peter makes two major points in his comments to Simon. First a person's heart has to be right with God. In other words, as we live our lives, our motives need to be pure and of the utmost honor. God calls us to do things for the good of others, to serve others, and not to do things in hopes of an earthly reward. If our motive is to get praise or some other reward for our self, then our heart may not be right with God.

Second, we must repent of our sins. Remember to repent is not just to say we are sorry, but we must truly live a changed life. It is easy to say we are sorry and not do anything to change our life. But if we are truly sorry, so sorry we do not want to do it again, we will change our life so we do not repeat the sin. Again, this is what God calls us to do.

Remember that no amount of money can buy salvation, forgiveness, or God's power. However, we all can gain them by having a servant's heart, repenting of our sins, and belief in Christ as our Savior.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Acts 7:30-43

Their hearts turned back to Egypt.

They were free, free at last. Generations of their mothers and fathers had labored as slaves and died in that foreign land, but they were breathing the air of freedom. They had ample food. They had pure water to drink. They were led by a man whom God had called, a man unique in history. They had a promise and a hope before them. By all rights they ought to have been looking forward.

They did not look, they did not move forward. They willfully traded their glorious inheritance in heaven for what they themselves had made, and they frolicked in the mire of their making. "Hey, we haven't a clue as to what happened to Moses, he may never show his face here again, so let's party down here in this godforsaken wilderness. In fact, if there's a caravan headed back to Egypt, let's hop on board."

Stephen knew that the likes of that crew, the type who didn't know freedom when it was openly offered to them, didn't become extinct in the Sinai desert. They were back, in fact they were in charge of things again, at least to an extent. They had an interest, an ungodly interest, in maintaining a relationship with idolatrous authority, so long as it facilitated their power. Change to their system, and especially a change that gave the people ideas about freedom, was dangerous, and must be quelled at all cost.

Stephen was building his case. He was making plain just what those authoritiesere doing. They were squirming in place. They were getting steamed. They were not going to abide this open provocation.

Stephen, like his Lord, was in danger even as he recited the warrant. But he wasn't going to stop telling the truth.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Acts 6:15-7:161

Today’s passage is part of a larger speech given by Stephen to the Sanhedrin. In it, Stephen traces the history of Israel from the days of Abraham to the present. In so doing, he draws forth lessons which boldly challenge his hearers to create a new future in better keeping with God’s design and purposes for his people.

In this section, Stephen reflects on the life of Abraham. He was a man who was willing to embrace the new thing that God was doing, to undertake the grand adventure of faith rather than clinging to the past. Next Stephen turns to Joseph, a man Stephen describes as being characterized by favor (grace) and wisdom. Like Abraham before him, he saw God at work in new and unexpected ways.

The point seems clear. God often works in surprising ways, in startling places that run counter to what one would predict, always reaching out in love to a larger and larger circle of people. God cannot be locked down to serve the whims, prejudices, and insecurities of a “chosen” few.

I think it is often easy for us as Christians to look back on Israel and say, “That was then but this is now. We’re different.” I think we’d be far wiser to recognize the same tendencies that were present in Israel are very likely present in us as well. We’d do better to look for the ways we’ve tried to lock God down rather than being open to new, startling, and frankly unexpected ways he is working now, just as he has always worked.

Otherwise, we may well find ourselves standing in a long line, a proud history, of stiff necked people marked not by wisdom and grace, but by resisting the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Acts 6:1-15

In today's reading, Luke once again gives us some very practical advice on the working of a church via an example that happened in the very early church. Today's example hits home with me and I think it is relevant to all of us.

The example I alluded to in the paragraph above is told in the first 7 verses of today's reading. This story is about delegation and volunteers. It would be impossible for a pastor or rector to do everything in the running of a church. I feel that one of a pastor's main priorities is the ministry of the Word, thus due to human limitations regarding time and space others must take on other duties within a church. In todays reading the "Twelve" represent a pastor of a church that must solve the problem of distributing food to certain widows without sacrificing their own calling.

Some people tend to look at a passage like this and make distinctions of importance between taking care of widows and teaching God's Word. However, I submit that Luke does not make this distinction. In fact, he tells us that all tasks within a church are so important that each must have a leader that has the ability and time to be successful.

As churches grow so do their needs. I am a witness to this fact as the church I belong to has grown quite a bit in the last few years (praise God). As a church's needs increase, so does its needs for volunteers to handle those additional items. As mentioned above, the pastor cannot do it alone. Luke tells us that an essential qualification for a volunteer put in charge of a need is "known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom." Some churches have such needs that sometimes the reverse happens - managers, teachers, or leaders for various aspects of church ministry are chosen and it is hoped that they grow into the job. Luke tells us that the success of the church is so important (i.e., bringing soles into a relationship with Jesus Christ) that the people we select for these positions must have the qualities needed to be successful and these qualities should be obvious.

All of us have God given gifts that can be used to advance the Kingdom. I urge all of us to understand our gifts and to offer them in service to God.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Acts 5:12-26

There used to be a show on TV, Joan of Arcadia, in which the main character challenged God to point out a miracle that occurred in modern times, God (he was an actual person she could see) pointed to a tree. Although today’s reading does not immediately translate to the same concept, it can. When we first read this story we are shown a fantastic image, the apostles were thrown into jail, yet Jesus enabled them to escape and preach without the guards of the jail ever knowing. But, when you think about it, this miracle translates to something that happens, or can happen in everyday life.

In America we are not put into prison for preaching God’s word, nor are we guarded by soldiers to enforce our silence; but there is a force which is, perhaps, even more daunting than the afore mentioned: society. We are told that it is inappropriate to relay our faith to others, and that any act which we use to consciously provide witness of Christ is a taboo one. But today’s reading gives us hope. The apostles were delivered from prison for their courage and faith, and that is something that we can rely on occurring every day if we allow it to; every day we can look for ways to witness — be it actually sharing our faith, or just a kind word, we are assured that God will allow us the strength and courage to rise above societal pressures and show Him to others.

As Saint Matthew’s draws its season of sending missions trips to an end with the return of the team from Philadelphia and the preparation of the team going to Mississippi there are many stories which people can tell about the power of being a witness for Christ. Although the people who went on these mission trips did travel to share God’s presence and His gifts to us, I would encourage us all to take these stories and make them part of our own lives, to rely on God to give us the courage to consciously use simple acts as an everyday witness for Him.

May we all marvel at trees, life, love, and His power.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Acts 4:13-31

Not too long before the events in these passages take place, the same Sanhedrin in these verses managed to put Jesus to death. Now, they seem almost speechless by the healing of the beggar (in Acts 3) by Peter. They can’t even make up their minds on how to punish Peter and John so they let them go.

How can such a change occur? I think two things were at work here. First, I believe that these occurrences were not random, but were brought about by God. They were part of His plan for starting the church. He allowed the beggar to be healed. It was the Holy Spirit that filled Peter and because of Peter’s testimony, 5,000 people were brought to Christ then and there. While hindsight is 20/20, it is clear that these were God events and not man-made.

The second thing I think was at work at that time was that Peter and John had only their faith to give them the courage to do what they did in Acts 3 and 4. They didn’t have to go to the temple in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was condemned to die. But Peter and John were all about following God’s plans, regardless of where that led them. They had total faith that they were doing God’s work and that God would either protect them or take them home to be with Jesus.

These events illustrate the fact that following God’s instructions can be painful. To maintain your faith and do what God is calling you to do takes a lot of prayer. If you are about to do something that is very difficult to do for a close friend or relative, something that makes you anxious and worried, but you know you must do it, wouldn’t you want to talk about it a lot to that person? Wouldn’t you want to talk through the action, what will happen before, during and after? How it will feel, etc.? That’s why you should pray all the time. Keeping the lines of communication to God open is the key to knowing His plan and following His plan, no matter how painful or where it takes you.

While I was on the mission trip to Africa this summer, I experienced knowing and doing God’s plan. We were told to pray about what God would have us do one afternoon. I spent about 30 minutes asking God, through prayer, what He would have me do. I had a strong feeling that I was to go to one of the bleakest townships in George, a neighborhood called Conville, and prayer walk. It was not a particularly safe place to go, nor was prayer walking something I had done much of, but I felt very strongly that God wanted me to do this. Then I ran into a bunch of obstacles. I was told I could not go without a man with me (we only had a few among us to begin with and they all were working on another project), plus, at the moment there was no transportation. I became very upset because I really felt that I needed to be in Conville. Within minutes, one of the men in our group said he would go (Deb Vereb also wanted to go) and the van returned from wherever it was and we were off to Conville. We prayer walked for hours and I had, again, the strongest feeling that I was truly doing the Lord’s work. I felt invincible in that knowledge. It was truly a God-thing.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Acts 4: 1-12

I think that when we do God’s work, we often expect people to be grateful for it. But it is interesting that here, when Peter and John teaching people about God, the result is that at least some folks (and some pretty powerful, pretty religious folks at that) were “much annoyed.”

And I think we should expect that as well. If we are doing what God calls us to do, and if others are not, then they have to be annoyed with us to justify their own choices and behavior. If we are boldly proclaiming Jesus, and others are failing to do so, then of course our proclamation will be upsetting to them. It is a way of excusing their own failure to do so.

Have you annoyed anybody lately with the faithfulness and boldness of your witness? Have I?
Of course, not everybody was annoyed. We are told that 5,000 who heard the word believed. That’s pretty impressive. Sounds like it was worth annoying a few people.

I think it is interesting that the Bible counts the number of people who believe. I firmly believe we all count what is important to us (number of years married, business profit, numbers of fish caught, number of games won by our favorite sports team, etc). The Bible counts the number of people who believe because those people are so very important to God.

How important are they to us? How many people can we count that have believed because of our witness?

We as the church get upset about many things we see “sinners” doing. I think it is often a way of excusing our failure to the primary thing God has called us to do: bring others to saving faith in his son, “ ‘for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’”

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Acts 3:1-11

One of the most interesting and infuriating things about faith is that we don’t always we get what we ask for.

Take the lame man in Acts 3, for example. He was begging for money, and he expected Peter and John to give him some of what he asked for. Certainly gold or silver would have been beneficial for the man; it wouldn’t have been a sin to give him any money. He would’ve probably used it to buy food, drink, or clothing—the necessities for survival. Peter didn’t choose not to give the lame man money because it would’ve been bad for the man—he chose not to give him money because he wanted him to have something better. After all, money only lasts for so long, but the ability to walk, leap, and dance lasts for a lifetime.

Likewise we often pray to God and ask him for things—things like good grades, new toys (be it a car, a TV, or an action figure), health, a bigger salary, or lasting relationships. Often I feel that we think that God will grant us our requests as long as those prayers aren’t harmful or sinful, but that’s not always the case. These things may not necessarily be bad for us, and in some cases they may really be beneficial—a bigger salary, for example, could mean more money to support not just a family but also to support a family. The fact still remains, though, that God may want us to hold out for something better.

It’s hard to comprehend the big picture, but we have to trust and believe that God keeps both the big picture and our best interests in mind when he listens to our prayers. It’s not that He’s a stingy God, or that He doesn’t listen—it’s just that He answers in unexpected ways. Usually we can’t expect or know what He’ll choose to give—the lame man from this passage certainly didn’t expect to receive a healing miracle beyond his wildest dreams—and likewise when we pray we often cannot comprehend the real beauty of what God will choose to answer our prayers with. We just have to trust that even if we don’t immediately understand, God has chosen to give us something truly better for us than what we’d even dream of asking for.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Acts 2.37-47

Today, as Saint Matthew’s sends out another mission team, I am struck by one particular instance in today’s passage, and that is the instance of movement.

In the preceding section of Acts Luke speaks of the promise of salvation so thoroughly and wonderfully that we are told that three thousand people, in that day alone, came to Christ. Luke writes, “they were cut to the heart;” as a physician, and the apostle most known for his factual accounts of Jesus’ story, for him to use such words he is, truly, portraying a powerful emotion.

Sadly, I must say that it has been a while since I have been so touched by feeling that I moved in such a way as any of these 3,000. Those who became Christians underwent huge lifestyle changes, and things were, conceivably, never the same for them; this, of course, leads me to my questions which, though somewhat rhetorical, I feel are worth individual thought:

When did I last feel so affected by Christ that I literally changed my life for Christ?
Have I not heard that call because I am unwilling to answer it should it come?
How can I change my life in small ways that will make an impact for God?

This last question is a question that I personally would focus on. In today’s society it is hard to make any overly drastic change in lifestyle, especially where we live; but it is easy to change small things. Mother Teresa is famous for having said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love,” and it is this logic behind the last question. If, indeed, we cannot do great things ourselves, then small things are the next best, as long as they are completed with the love of Christ. Along with this thought is that of Gandhi, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Imagine if each of us changed one small thing, if we all did one thing with great love and devotion, and then pointed that thing towards God. How awe inspiring would that outcome be?

So, I urge us all to set aside a brief time to do something passionately for God every day, knowing that we are moving because we, too, have been cut through to the heart.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Acts 2:22-36

"He has poured out what you both see and hear"

I'd like to extend the discussion of the last post. Peter is addressing the crowd which is, to say the least, amazed and awestruck at what they see (tongues of fire) and hear (Galileans praising God in every language of the then-known world). These people from many different regions and dialects are nonetheless all Jews of the Diaspora. They know the Scriptures which speak of Messiah. They have also heard the news of a wonder-working itinerant rabbi who was turned over to the Roman authorities and cruelly executed. Peter connects these two strands with his testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus--why it had to be so--and his explanation of why, at 9 o'clock on this Sunday morning, there is cause for celebration that will endure through the ages--endures today.

A few weeks ago we were privileged to hear the testimony of several parishioners who had just returned from Belize. They provided poignant and convicting words that said in effect, sometimes you must go away in order to come home. What these young people had seen and testified to was the connectedness of a faith that has been passed along, person-to-person, for a hundred generations, and is being renewed in spirit in this generation as well. If we have not ourselves seen the risen body of Jesus, we have seen and heard things that are just as real, just as powerful.

May that Spirit speak and be heard among us today. Amen.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Acts 2:1-21

This time of year a hint of sadness underlies summer fun for some of us. We parents of college students know now that we are counting down the days to when, when we wake up in the morning, our loved one will be many miles away instead of down stairs in their bedroom. In John 16 Jesus speaks to His disciples. He has told them that He is going away and they are getting more and more sad, “filled with grief” at the prospect that Jesus will be taken from them in His death and resurrection. Jesus comforts them by saying, I realize that you are sad, but truly, it is for your good that I am going away, for only if I go can the Holy Spirit come to you.

Jesus explains the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will convict the world, that is, show the world its need for a Savior. I have a lot more to say to you, Jesus told the disciples, but you can’t bear to hear it all now. But, Jesus told them, when the Holy Spirit comes, He will guide you and help you understand my words and my will.

So, in today’s passage, the Holy Spirit comes. He doesn’t come to just the 12. He comes in dramatic fashion (tongues of fire) to believers from many countries and languages. Like Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit doesn’t draw attention to Himself but at Pentecost, believers who received the Holy Spirit told of God’s mighty works. (v. 11). One of the first miracles of Pentecost was unity; many different peoples brought together by the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus promised, today we can listen to the Holy Spirit. We can ask Him to guide us in God’s will, to comfort, to help us understand.

The work of the Holy Spirit is a vast concept to try to understand. I am awed when I read Jesus’ assurances in John 16; He is so sure about the work of the Holy Spirit that He knows that going away for a little time is God’s best plan. Thank God for the Holy Spirit.