Church unity… a miracle?

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Acts 4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 

V.32 particularly gets my attention this morning. First, it says the believers were “of one heart and soul”. Earlier chapters indicate there were already at least 5,000 converts to the faith, so this isn’t a handful of people we’re talking about. Yet they were unified in powerful ways.

For some reason I’m having a hard time grasping this, mostly because real unity is so rare in my experience of the church. I’m not talking about in one particular congregation, but in the church as a whole. Christians can be very creative about finding ways to disagree with one another. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

That said, there’s nothing that unifies a people more than opposition, which was the context of the early church. When pressed from outside, we will find a way to come together. Remember what it was like in the days and weeks after 9/11? Americans came together in ways I’ve not seen before or since. Considering how divided we are as a nation today, particularly as it relates to the political arena, 9/11 unity seems like ancient history.

But the truth is that the early Christians didn’t come together because they were such exceptional people. Unity was then, and is now, a gift of God. And considering that all things are possible through Christ, my cynical/jaded heart has hope that unity can be restored. Even in the church. Lord let it be so…

 

God uses “uneducated and ordinary men”…

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Acts 4:13 Now when (the religious authorities) saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. 14 When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. 16 They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.

Three things stand out for me in this passage. First, despite the fact that Peter and John were “uneducated and ordinary men”, there was no denying the power of God manifest through them. This demonstration by men perceived to be unqualified by the higher-ups continued the disruptive work begun by Jesus himself. God continues the disruptive work of Jesus to this day.

Secondly, Peter and John were simply imitating Jesus. In other words, they were doing the kinds of things they’d seen Jesus do many, many times. Jesus told them that they would follow in his footsteps doing “even greater things than these” but they didn’t believe him at the time. However, once they received the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were off and running. V.13 says that others were struck by the “boldness” of these disciples of Jesus. It’s important to note from where the boldness came. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, v.22 notes “For the man (who was healed)… was more than 40 years old.” As if this somehow makes the healing even more miraculous?! LOL! I guess, as one who is over 50 now, that makes me candidate for an even greater miracle!

Lord Jesus, accompany us in this season of Advent as we wait to celebrate your coming 2,000 years ago, and for your coming again in glory. Amen.

 

Peter and John get harassed…

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Acts 4:1 While Peter and John were speaking to the people (after having healed a man who could not walk), the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2 much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3 So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand. 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 

Peter and John get harassed by the religious authorities because they, as simple fishermen from out in the sticks, do not have the appropriate training to teach the faith. Not only that, the very large crowds are watching them perform miracles, listening to their teaching about Jesus, and becoming part of the Christian community. Where do these simpletons get off?!

Too often I see the modern church do something similar. The church can run off quality leaders because, according to the powers that be, they don’t have the right training/education/background. Yet God chooses to move through them. We need them. This morning I wonder how church hierarchy can get out of the way so gifted people can do their thing for Jesus. Kyrie eleison…

Enduring the cave…

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Psalm 142:1 With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord. 2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. 3 When my spirit is faint, you know my way. In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. 4 Look on my right hand and see — there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me. 5 I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” 6 Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low. Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me. 7 Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name. The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

We’re told this psalm was written by David while he was hiding from his predecessor King Saul. David had enjoyed a blessed life, defeating the giant Goliath in battle against all odds. He had been chosen to serve King Saul in his court and then as leader of the army, enjoying success in whatever he did. His next step was to become king himself, but before he was crowned his journey went sideways.

King Saul, threatened by David, pursued David as he hid in a large cave. A cave is a good place to hide unless you’re discovered. There’s no escape from a cave with only one entrance, so David was trapped (v.7 “Bring me out of prison…”). It seemed like only a matter of time before he would be captured by Saul and put to death. But just when it seemed there was no hope he was saved by God.

But this episode was not without purpose. If David didn’t know it already, he owed everything to God. There was a humility that emerged from David as he experienced hardship and desperation. This would happen many times over the course of his life. And each time his back was against the wall, and there seemed to be no hope, he would recall God’s faithfulness through the years and he would be strengthened.

Through the hardship of the cave David matured in some very important ways.

We all go through difficult seasons in life. When I’m experiencing hardship and struggle, I cry out to God asking for him to deliver me ASAP. I don’t want to spend any more time in the dark caves of life than I have to. Lord, get me out of here!

But the truth is that God often uses these cave seasons to form us, shape us, mature us, prepare us for what lies ahead. There are lessons to be learned , character to be formed, humility to be embraced, in the cave. It may look like “game over”, but it’s not. The devil thought Jesus was dead and gone forever when they laid him in a burial cave. But God was not done with Jesus as he raised him back to life on the third day. Jesus’ greatest defeat was followed by his greatest victory, a victory over sin and death forever.

God does some of his best work in the cave.

Are you in a cave season right now? Are you being pressed from every side? Does there appear to be no hope of escape? If so, you’re not alone. And while it’s perfectly normal to pray for deliverance from the cave, pause a moment and ask yourself, “Is there something important for me in this cave season? Rather than praying for escape, should I be praying for patience and grace to remain in the cave until God has completed the work in me?”

Lord, dwell with us in the cave. Do a work in us that we cannot do for ourselves. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The miracle of diversity…

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Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

This is the record of the first Christian converts. v.43 says they observed “many wonders and signs” in their midst. I’ve generally understood this to mean that miraculous healings and casting out demons were happening and that’s probably true. But in discussing this passage with a colleague, it was pointed out that the “wonders and signs” weren’t necessarily of the supernatural variety. Look what’s described in v.44-45 as an example.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

One thing we know is that the early church was comprised of diverse people. There were Jews and Greeks and other Gentiles. Men and women. Wealthy people, servants, and slaves. It was unheard in ancient Israel that such different kinds of peoples would actually live together AND share their possessions so no one was in need. That was indeed miraculous, but in my opinion, no more so than it would be today.

I live in suburban Dallas and while it is increasingly ethnically diverse, it is NOT an economically diverse place. In that sense it’s like most other large American cities. We tend to self-segregate. The church is mostly like that as well. Churches tend not to be particularly diverse in any sense of that word.

But what this passage in Acts shows us is that it’s possible. The Spirit of God present in Christian community has a way of taking down the dividing walls and making diverse peoples one. Lord, that we might see this more and more in the church. A miracle indeed. Amen.

The power of Pentecost

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Acts 2:14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

When the day of Pentecost had come and the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples they began to speak in languages other than their own. Today we refer to this as “speaking in tongues”. Some of the bystanders thought they were drunk, but Peter corrected them. What they were witnessing was the fulfillment of the prophesy spoken through Joel. Two things about this passage I find interesting.

First, I’m struck by the boldness of Peter. Not long before this incident Peter and his fellow disciples were hiding behind closed doors, fearing they would be killed as Jesus had been. But filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter was a different man. Reminds me of the words of the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ, for now it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Secondly, I’m struck by the inclusive nature of the prophecy. In years past only certain persons received the Spirit of God, generally men specially appointed by God. However, at Pentecost that all changed. The Spirit fell on all believers – men, women, slave-owners, slaves, Jews, non-Jews, you name it. God is not partial.

I wasn’t a committed believer until my mid-20s, so it surprises me that I was called to be a pastor. I didn’t grow up in church youth group or church camp. I never worked as a camp counselor nor did I attend a Lutheran college or university. Most of the pastors I know did one or more of these things, so I don’t fit the mold. But over the 20 years of being a pastor I’ve come to accept and even appreciate the different path I took to ministry. I’m grateful that, like Peter and the other disciples, God grabbed hold of me via the power of the Spirit and never let me go.

Hungry…

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2 Kings 6:24 Some time later King Ben-hadad of Aram mustered his entire army; he marched against Samaria (a city in Israel) and laid siege to it. 25 As the siege continued, famine in Samaria became so great that a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, “Help, my lord king!” 27 He said, “No! Let the LORD help you. How can I help you? From the threshing floor or from the wine press?” 28 But then the king asked her, “What is your complaint?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him.’ But she has hidden her son…

3 Now there were four leprous men outside the city gate, who said to one another, “Why should we sit here until we die? 4 If we say, ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there; but if we sit here, we shall also die. Therefore, let us desert to the Aramean camp; if they spare our lives, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall but die.” 5 So they arose at twilight to go to the Aramean camp; but when they came to the edge of the Aramean camp, there was no one there at all. 6 For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the sound of chariots, and of horses, the sound of a great army… 7 So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys leaving the camp just as it was, and fled for their lives. …16 Then the people went out, and plundered the camp of the Arameans. 

Two key points I see this morning:

  1. Here there is another instance of a common pattern of scripture. God brings relief, but only after all hope has been lost. I mean ALL hope. The people needed a miracle, which is exactly what they got. This reminds me to never count God out. It may look like it’s over, but God is capable of intervening at any moment. In fact, it would seem the more desperate the situation the more likely it is that God will show up.
  2. When there appears to be no possible way for God to bring relief, God can find a way. It never occurred to the leaders of Samaria that the Arameans would abandon their camp leaving all of their provision – especially their food – intact. Here again, God makes something out of nothing.

That said, it’s really hard to keep hoping when things are such a mess. It’s hard to keep praying when prayers appear to be for naught. It’s hard to believe for a miracle when there appears to be no possibility of relief. So today I’m asking the Lord for faith to keep praying, keep believing, keep trusting that God has not forgotten me in my struggles.