"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 14 and 15

At the beginning of this journey through Luke's gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, I wrote that my prayer would be for us to be able to discern some answers to the following questions: 
  • Am I becoming more fully the person God made me to be?
  • Are we, the church in the world today, becoming more fully the people of God, the unified community of believers, who God is calling us to be?
I found myself revisiting these questions as I read Acts chapters 14 and 15.

The former question came to mind as I read chapter 14 and the story of Paul and Barnabas in Iconium, where they had traveled after being thrown out of Antioch because of hostility toward them for proclaiming a gospel message that included (gasp!) Gentiles. In spite of the heavy resistance by some to their message, Paul and Barnabas remained faithful to their calling. The result? The hostility intended to silence Paul and Barnabas actually had an opposite effect...the gospel message of Jesus Christ spread even further.

Hostility in Antioch? Paul and Barnabas left and went to Iconium.

Hostility in Iconium? They went instead to Lystra.

Stoned and left for dead in Lystra? They made their way to Derbe. 

I can only imagine the questions Paul and Barnabas must have asked themselves as they traveled along, continually suffering abuse from their own people simply for being faithful to the work that God had called them to and delivering the message God had called them to proclaim. 
"Barnabas, remind me again why we do this?"
Because everywhere Paul and Barnabas went hearts and  lives were changed...that's why. The reality of what the Holy Spirit was doing in and through them must have been what kept them going. So much so, in fact, that they went back to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch to strengthen the disciples they had made in those places and urge them to remain firm in the faith. 

Apparently, Paul and Barnabas were pretty confident in who God was calling them to be.

And, they must have understood well what the great and powerful Jedi-theologian Yoda meant when he famously said, "No! Try not! Do or do not, there is no try."

This brings us now to chapter 15, when Paul and Barnabas were rewarded for the success of their Gentile mission with an appointment to participate in a church disagreement.

Some reward.

What does this fact have to do with the latter question revisited above, you ask? To begin with, the strong reminder from reading this chapter that for over 2,000 years the Christian church has struggled with becoming a "unified community of believers." 

Back to the argument... Some Pharisees claimed that Gentiles could indeed become believers, but they had to play by the rules of the community - be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James didn't quite see it that way and after much debate it was decided that instead of subjecting the Gentiles to the distinctly Jewish way of living out their Christian faith that they would send a message of encouragement with instructions for strengthening the budding faith of their Gentile brothers and sisters. I am sure that Paul and Barnabas weren't the least bit surprised that their approach was well received.

I admit, however, that I was surprised that chapter 15 ended with yet another argument, this time between Paul and Barnabas of all people. In fact, we are told in verse 39 that "their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways."

It saddens me that intense arguments happen in the church even today, sometimes over big and important things and other times over the smallest and pettiest of things. Through them all, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that each individual person who is a party to the disagreement is uniquely gifted and called and that together we make up the people of God. In spite of our many disagreements, we all want to become more fully the people God made us to be while participating in a church that is itself becoming, for a closely watching world, what God needs for it to be.

I read a prayer in my devotion time today that I find, for whatever reason, to be a fitting conclusion to this post:
“Lord, keep us from making crosses out of the splinters of discomfort in our lives. Help us recognize the true crosses you call us to bear, those whose weight lends to the freedom and provision of others. Amen.” (Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro. “Common Prayer.” Zondervan, 2010, p. 654)

Monday, September 15, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapter 13

Last week, I wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the disciples, as told in chapters 11 and 12. This week, there is an obvious continuation of that theme in chapter 13, with even more evidence that the disciples weren't working alone:
  • ...the Holy Spirit said, "Appoint Barnabas and Saul to the work I have called them to undertake." (v. 2)
  • After the Holy Spirit sent them on their way... (v. 4)
  • Empowered by the Holy Spirit... (v. 9)
And my favorite:
  • Because of the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the disciples were overflowing with happiness. (v. 52) 
As I reflected on this chapter, one thing that became all the more clear to me was that the disciples were accountable to the Holy Spirit, as well as to their community, for carrying out the work set before them.

Maybe it is because the regular season of the National Football League is now well underway, but this thought brought to mind a mantra that I often made reference to during my days in financial services. If I remember correctly, it was something I heard that Tiki Barber once said to his fellow offensive players on the New York Giants before a game.
"None of us are entitled...we are all accountable."
To me, one of things I find most striking, and beautiful, about these stories of the first disciples is their singleness of Spirit. They were wholly committed to, and accountable for, their task of spreading the Gospel...and there was no sense of entitlement among them. And why would there have been? After all, the message they repeated time and again essentially said to their hearers: "Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn't be put in right relationship with God through Moses' Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God." (v. 38-39)

Indeed, the saving grace of Jesus Christ is available to "everyone who believes" but that doesn't mean we are entitled to it. We are all accountable for changing our hearts and lives.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

#LukeActs2014 - Acts chapters 11 and 12

As we continue reading these incredible stories of conversion and the growth of the early church, one thing couldn't be more clear - these are stories of God's actions. Yes, the disciples are acting with faithful obedience to their call to spread the gospel, but the result clearly could never have been accomplished without Divine Providence.
"The Lord’s power was with them, and a large number came to believe and turned to the Lord." (Acts 11:21, CEB)
Acts chapters 11 and 12 are filled with references to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the disciples and new believers. As I read these stories, I was struck by the faithfulness of the disciples and the church to prayer (Peter praying in Joppa in v. 11:5, the church fervently praying for Peter in 12:5). I was also reminded about something a seminary professor once said about the Holy Spirit in a lecture...that the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity who will sit in the back of the church and wait to be invited in.

The current state of affairs in the Church and in the world calls for our fervent prayer and invitation to the Holy Spirit. And so, I invite you to join me in using this prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal:

An Invitation to the Holy Spirit (UMH #335):

O God, the Holy Spirit,
    come to us, and among us;
    come as the wind, and cleanse us;
    come as the fire, and burn;
    come as the dew, and refresh;
convict, convert, and consecrate
    many hearts and lives
        to our great good
        and to thy greater glory;
and this we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.