Thursday, June 25, 2009

Acts 6:15-7:16

In today’s reading, we see that love and truth go hand in hand, and that either one without the other is not a truly Christian witness.

The reading begins with Stephen’s arrest for his open association with Jesus Christ. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, this made him seem like an enemy of the temple, the tradition of Moses, and indeed of God himself. Just like Jesus before him, he too is being tried for blasphemy.

It is perhaps worth noting right off the bat how Stephen addresses his accusers. “Brothers and fathers,” he says. In other words, he is not defiant or disrespectful, and I don’t think this is merely a matter political maneuvering. To the contrary, Stephen is saying that he understands his connection to them even if they do not recognize their connection to him. Believing the best in love, “Brothers and fathers” is genuinely how Stephen chooses to see his opponents.

We often see Stephen as a bold witness for Jesus, and he was. In the challenging words that follow, he doesn’t hold back or “dumb down” the truth. But I think it is important that we also see him as a loving witness as well. His love was expressed both in his attitude and in his willingness to tell the truth, each complementing the other.

Even when we disagree—particularly when we disagree!—may we treat one another with love, as sisters and mothers, brothers and fathers. And then, graciously and respectfully as we would with our mother or father, sister or brother, may we not shrink back from speaking the truth—even when the truth may be hard to hear and when doing so may come at great personal cost.

For Jesus, truth and love walked hand in hand. Following Jesus, it is the same for Stephen. May it be the same for you and me as well.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Acts 5:27-42

What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Sometimes we don't really have answers to specifics of what we believe until it is challenged. Do we believe something enough to stand up for it? Or would we let others tell us how/what/ or why we should believe? Or even who to believe in?

In today's readings the apostles are brought before the Sanhedren and told what they could and could not say - or, in other words - what they could and could not believe. They had a choice, spare themselves or really stand up and be strong in their faith and take whatever comes their way. They knew that death was a possible outcome to their statements of faith - they saw the crucifixion of Jesus. And yet, they stood strong in their faith.

In a world where everything seems grey sometimes, no real right or wrong, sometimes we need to remember that yes, indeed, there is a right and wrong. It is wrong to be selfish with the gospel. It is wrong to treat others with disdain or contempt, no matter how much their personalities clash with ours. It is wrong to not give to those in need. It is very right to love God and to extend God's love to everyone we meet.

Sometimes we will be criticized. Sometimes even ostracized. But as Gamaliel said, if we are doing the work of God, we will prosper no matter what the challenge ahead.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Acts 4:32-5:11. A Blessing-- and a Curse

In considering this passage, it would be easy to go directly to the sobering story of Ananias and Sapphira, at the end of which "great fear seized the whole church." Yes, we too are intended to feel the shock of what happened to the couple. But let us first find the blessing.
The church in Jerusalem shared one heart and one soul. The needs of all were being met through the combined wealth of all. From a purely legal perspective, individuals still had their own property rights, but they did not view them in that way. It must have brought an incredible freedom both to those who had much, and to those who had less. And there were repeated examples of incredible generosity, of which one specific example, Barnabas, whose name means and shouts encouragement across the millennia, is cited. And the example resonates for us as well.
However, here, as everywhere since the Fall, Satan was busy, and two people (as at Eden) accepted the lie that it would be even better to "have your cake and eat it too"--i.e., they could represent themselves as having given all, with corresponding honors, and get a few benefits on the side and on the sly. (Satan's even bigger lie, and one that is a snare for many of us today, was that they couldn't both give freely and fully and meet their own needs.) And they died--I think--of their own mortification, when the lie that they told was exposed.
In our own community of faith, when we are presented continually with examples of how unfettered sharing leads to a multiplication of blessings as we partner with God to do his work--let us not hold back. O Lord, guard us from the temptation to seek praise and honor for less than the fullest and complete outflow of our hearts. And may our heart and soul truly be One. Amen.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Acts 2:37-47

Today’s reading has two very moving images. This passage comes at the end of Peter’s well known sermon after Pentecost (he begins that sermon by explaining that those who spoke in tongues were moved by the Holy Spirit and not by alcohol). First, after that sermon, God moved in the listeners and 3000 people came to know the Lord, and these people are our spiritual ancestors.

Secondly, one of the ways that God grew that early church was powerful community. Basically, the people were so filled with God that they needed little else, it seems. Not needing material goods, they sold their possessions (verse 45) and gave the proceeds to anyone in need. They fed on God’s word, met together, and seemed to need little else. Giving thanks to God, they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” How can I show my gladness today, by giving to others?

I am reminded of Psalm 73:25,
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”

May we look around at our wonderful earth and what it contains, and realize that what we really have to be thankful for is inside us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Acts 2:22-36

How much freedom does an individual have to change something of which they choose to be a part?

If, for instance, I am a Marine, how much freedom do I have to change Marine Corps’s beliefs and practices? If I said to the Corps “you’re way too violent, you need to plant roses instead of training with guns”, would they listen to me? Probably not. I am completely free to hold that belief with all my heart, but if I insist upon it so that I don’t train with soldiers but go off in my little garden and spend my days planting roses, I cannot with integrity consider myself a Marine.

We might also ask, should the Marine Corps listen to me? Should they stop training with guns and start planting roses instead? Some might think so. But if they did, they would no longer be the Marine Corps. They would cease to serve the purpose for which the Corps was created, having become a horticultural society instead of an elite military unit.

Or take another example. Say I belong to a catch and release (letting the fish go instead of eating it) fly fishing club. Do I have the freedom to be a member of that club even I choose only to fish only with worms and kill everything I catch?It would not seem so. If I insist on using worms and killing everything I catch, there is no meaningful sense in which I could consider myself a fly fisherman who practices catch and release.

Should the club change to meet my personal beliefs and practices? Again, it would hardly seem so. If it did, it would cease to be what it was created to be, a community in which people rejoice in their shared love of fishing with flies and letting the beautiful fish they catch go to live another day.

A final example. How much freedom does an individual have to change the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I’d suggest the answer is directly analogous to the above examples. We do not change it; we submit to it. If we don’t submit to it, we may be many things, some of which are fine and good, but we are not Christians.

That’s what Peter is saying in today’s Gospel. Jesus is Lord and Messiah, raised from the dead by the supernatural power of God. For those who would faithfully follow him, only one response is possible: “Yeah and amen.” To say that any other answer is possible is to preach a false gospel, one that is not worthy of the name of Jesus or those who profess to follow him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Acts 2:1-21

Our Bible reading for today has two main parts. Part one is a description of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples at Pentecost and part two is Peter beginning his speech to the crowd in Jerusalem. Both of these parts have a special meaning for me. They both provide me a message.

Have you ever wanted God to make His presence known to you in as spectacular a way as He did on the day of Pentecost for the disciples? After all, wouldn't it be nice for God to let us know He has something to tell us, to get our attention, by sending violent wind, fire, and the Holy Spirit to announce His message? Most of the time God does not use this technique to get our attention. God often speaks in a gentle whisper. It is true that God sometimes uses dramatic methods in our lives to get our attention, but more often He does not. Thus, we must always listen for God's word. This first part continues to remind me that in our busy lives we must find the time to clear our minds and listen for God's whisper.

The second part of today's reading is about one of my Bible heroes, Peter. Have you ever felt as if you have made such bad mistakes that God could never forgive you? I know I have. This is why Peter is one of my heroes. While following Jesus, Peter had a short temper, was an unstable leader, and denied Christ three times on the night before His execution. It would seem to me that these characteristics would disqualify Peter from being useful to fulfill Christ's work on earth. But Christ forgave Peter and restored him. No matter what sins you or I have committed, God promises to forgive us if we truly repent. Once we have repented God can then use us to further His kingdom. Peter allowed God to forgive him and then to use him. If God can use someone like Peter, with all of his human faults, then He can certainly use us to advance His kingdom. The story of Peter provides me with inspiration as we, and especially me, all have our human faults.

Friday, June 12, 2009

2 Corinthians 12:11-21

I must admit that I do not know very much about 2 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians is such a happier letter. So, I did some research and I learned quite a bit about Paul. He is perhaps at his most human in these particular passages. Frankly, he is upset at the Corinthians and the gossip he has heard of what they have said about him. So, he writes an angry letter. In this case, it works. If you read the rest of 2 Corinthians, Paul ends the letter (which, it is believed, is actually 2 or more letters) with a message of reconciliation.

But, how did he know that it would work? When I feel hurt, I don't always think straight. In fact, the natural response is to lash out - to hurt the person who is hurting you. I have never put my hurt feelings in a letter to the person. That would seem to immortalize the hurt and would just give the person something to use against me. What was Paul thinking? Did he think that the Corinthians would read his letter, sarcastic tone and all, and think that he had a good point? From what I understand, it took some time for Paul's relationship with the Corinthians to heal. This letter was, in fact, hurtful to them and they were not necessarily willing to bury the hatchet right away.

One thing is certain - Paul was driven in his service to God. As we read in yesterday's passage, Paul was also humbled in his service to God. I believe this served him well as he wrote this difficult part of the letter. Although he was personally hurt, he knew that the ultimate goal was to get the Corinthians to straighten up and fly right in their growth with the Lord. Since the goal was entirely unselfish, the letter worked. It took time, but eventually the Corinthians turned away from the evil they were doing that caused Paul the hurt to begin with.

Once again, we can learn from Paul. By remembering his place in God's plan, he was able to use his hurt feelings to fulfill unselfish goals. May we also come to understand our humble place and how best to respond to hurtful situations with the same outcome as Paul.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

In today’s passage, Paul expresses his deep, deep desire to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Paul has found that this witness is so much more powerful in weakness than in strength; in insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities rather than success. For whenever I am weak, Paul writes, then Christ is strong.

That runs so counter to our culture, even in the church, of celebrity and spin. It runs so counter to the way I often try to present myself, as bigger or better than I really am. It runs counter to the privileges to which I sometimes feel I am entitled. It runs counter to the things I seek in life which are more likely to be about me than about Jesus.

What would it look like for Christians to get off this bigger is better kick, this glitz and glamour kick, and this power kick where culture is shaped not through love or sharing Christ but in attempting to force others to see things our way?

So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, Paul writes, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. That, friends, is a message the church needs to hear today. It’s a message I need to hear. Could it be that you do too?

(BTW, if you memorize Bible verses--and I very much hope you do--may I suggest that 2 Corinthians 12:9 is a great verse for memorization?)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2 Corinthians 11:21-33

If I truly believe in heaven, a place where I will live for all eternity, a place where there is a peace and a joy beyond my limited human capacity to comprehend, what wouldn't I do to get there? Accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the way to get to heaven. A demonstration of this acceptance is to surrender our own will and to live in the will of God; to live per God's calling and guidance. If I am living in accordance with God's calling for me, is there a trial or suffering that is too great for me to bear in this life?

When I read this section of this letter to the Corinthians, it is amazing to me to reflect on Paul's account of the dangers, hardships, and sufferings he endured and at the same time to see his patience, perseverance, diligence, and cheerfulness in the midst of these trials. Paul says he has been imprisoned, received 39 lashes five different times, been beaten with rods three different times, been stoned, been shipwrecked three times, often gone without sleep, known hunger and thirst, and been cold and naked. When I compare my trials and sufferings in my service for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they seem unworthy of notice when compared to his. Sometimes the comparative puny trials I am called to face can almost break my spirit to continue. It is extremely humbling to realize what Paul suffered in his walk with God. When I feel like giving up the things I hear God calling me to do, I like to reread this passage. It puts it all back in perspective for me.

Dear friends, please remember that our faith grows, is strengthened, in times of trials and suffering. It is easy to praise God when things are going well. Our faith will grow when we praise God during a time of suffering. The trials we experience for Christ's sake build our character, demonstrate our faith, and prepare us for further service to the Lord.

Friday, June 05, 2009

2 Corinthians 9:1-15

As you will you also reap.

Whatever seed I put in the ground...that is a forerunner of what will germinate and grow and blossom and be harvested.

If I invest little care in what I plant...I can't expect prize-winning fruit.

If I give from the fringes of my heart...I'm not going to find the love of my life.

But...when I find what is lovely and good and can I not invest heart and mind and soul?

God makes a promise: he will bless our sowing, as we sow in good faith.

Paul had seen it in the churches he had planted. Do we not also ourselves look back and see the evidence of how God has blessed us through good times and hard times, to be sure later sometimes than we might have hoped, but consistently and faithfully?

I thank God for providing a church community that sometimes struggles but faithfully seeks to live into the myriad gifts that God has bestowed on us. The mission is larger than we are, and will remain so. That's why we are here, and why we need to lean on a greater power as we go forward. But if we're going to realize God's dream for us, we will need to be greatly invested, in money and time and in indescribable gifts that become dividend shares for the Lord's work.


II Corinthians 8:16-24

What really encourages you? I have been encouraged by the caring friendship of others, as when a friends shows concern about my children. On a deeper level, I am encouraged when I attend a church event and see the faithfulness of others gathered there, whether it be for worship or for service.

In today’s reading, Paul first comments on the heart of Titus. Paul as a “shepherd” cares about the church at Corinth. He is glad to see that Titus also cares about this church, having an “eagerness” for them. I can picture Titus waiting eagerly to see the Corinthians, as you and I wait eagerly to see dear friends. Paul realizes that it is God who gives this gift of faithfulness; he thanks God in verse 16 that God, being the source of all, put this caring in Titus’ heart. As I pray this reminds me to remember that God is the source of all.

In this reading Paul mentions Titus and others who are faithful to meet the needs of the church. I thank God for so many who set an example to me in their hard work and perseverance. Like Paul says, they have been “tested and found eager.” May I be faithful as well.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

2 Corinthians 8:1-16

Many people live beyond their means. But today’s Gospel talks of a group of people who gave beyond their means!

What might that look like, giving beyond our means? For this group of people, the Macedonians, it meant they gave even when they really couldn’t afford to give anything at all. Though they were very poor—completely destitute captures the sense of their “extreme poverty”—they were willing to part with what little they had to help someone who had even less. It meant they were willing to go without.

What would giving beyond our means look like for us? It’s worth thinking about, especially in these economic hard times. It’s also worth thinking about in a culture where we are encouraged to live a lifestyle that doesn’t always leave us much to give away.

Certainly it means giving at cost to oneself. Might it also mean giving to the point that our own lifestyle suffers? That our own “buying power” is diminished? That we too go without?

I love how Paul puts it in verse 7: Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. The Corinthians were a people who were all about excellence. Does that remind you of another culture at another place in time? Paul says, “That’s great. I applaud your deep commitment to excellence in all things. Now how about giving? How about being excellent in your giving as well?”

Hmmm. It seems to me it could be really exciting to be so fully devoted to Jesus that we are a people who excel in generosity and willingness to give beyond our means. I think there could be a ton of joy in that.

I guess there’s only one way to find out!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

2 Corinthians 7:2-16

Today's reading comes from Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth. In the first chapters of this letter, Paul has been dealing with negative problems in that church. However, in today's reading Paul begins to express confidence and joy in the Corinthians and encourages them to seek God's help in order to continue their faithful service.

The verse from today's reading that speaks loudly to me is verse 10, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

Paul contrasts two types of sorrow. The first is "Godly sorrow" and the second is "worldly sorrow". I feel in this context Paul is using sorrow to mean regret and emotional pain. Repentance means a change in one's ways, a change in behavior, and change in mindset. Paul is telling us that when a person realizes that he or she has done wrong, that person should not only regret the error but also turn back to God. For it is with God's help that people can change their ways and free themselves from sin.

Let's take an example. Let's look at Peter and Judas during the events surrounding Jesus' death. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss and thus hands him over to suffering and death. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times out of fear for his own safety. Both are overcome with grief due to their actions. Peter had the humility and courage to admit his failure and to seek God's help to change. And we know that God did help him change and used him to build his church. Judas, on the other hand, was too proud, too stubborn, to admit his fault and ask for God's help. Judas let his remorse eat at his soul. And as we know, overcome with guilt, Judas committed suicide.

The sorrow Peter felt caused him to seek God's help and he was transformed into a church leader. Judas did not seek God's help with his sorrow and it eventually lead to his death. One had "Godly sorrow" and the other had "worldly sorrow". When we realize we have done wrong and have regret, do we turn to God for help? Paul clearly indicates that we should!!!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

2 Corinthians 6:3-7:1

"We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."

These verses from today's passage of 2 Corinthians is one of my favorites. Paul is really making a huge statement - that though ALL things - good or bad - we have everything because we have Christ in our hearts and in our lives... in all things. Statements really put life in perspective - that whatever we might be enduring, we have all we need to get through it. We have Jesus and He is everything. We do not have promises of an easy life. In fact we are told that life is, in fact, difficult. What we do have is promise of a Comforter, one who will care for us and be with us regardless of what we endure and He is EVERYTHING we need.