Continue in the grace of God…

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Acts 13:42 As Paul and Barnabas were going out (of the synagogue), the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. 43 When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. 

The phrase “continue in the grace of God” catches my eye this morning. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that we are not justified by God through works of the law, but by the grace of God in Christ Jesus – who takes away our sin and gives to us his righteousness and eternal life. V.43 says the ones following Paul and Barnabas were “Jews and devout converts to Judaism”, which means they would have been observers of the Jewish dietary restrictions, purity laws, circumcision, and other things. In other places in scripture these laws and restrictions are described as a burden which weighed heavily on people. Accepting Jesus as Lord meant relief from the straitjacket of the law for these new converts.

Lord Jesus thank you that you offer to us forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace alone – apart from works of the law. Amen.

Making peace with my weakness…

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Psalm 10: 12 Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed13 Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”? 14 But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none. 16 The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land. 17 O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear 18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

I’m noticing this morning on whose behalf the Lord acts: the oppressed, helpless, orphan, meek. Reminds me of a verse from the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 40: 29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 

Jesus’ sermon on the mount from Matthew offers similar sentiments. God does not tend to act on behalf of the powerful, the ones with resources (people, money, authority) at their disposal. It’s the ones who have no hope without the Lord, and who are aware of their great need of God, who tend to receive the advocacy of God.

I once met a pastor from rural China named Brother Yun. He was pastor to several underground churches, ones not sanctioned by the Chinese government. He’d been beaten and jailed several times and had the scars to prove it. He told stories of God’s amazing advocacy for the poor who mostly comprised the church in rural China. Miracles. Amazing acts of power. When asked why it is we do not tend to see these kinds of miraculous healings and such in the West, he mentioned all the hospitals he had seen while traveling in the US. And then said something to the effect of, “With all these hospitals who needs the Lord?” In other words, we tend to place our hope and trust in medical resources because they are comparatively abundant in the West. I don’t think he meant it as an insult, just an observation.

A few years later when I went to rural West Africa (not China) I saw the kind of thing Brother Yun was referring to. In many villages there was little in the way of institutional medical care. And so, even in villages suspicious of Christians, there was generally a request for us to pray for the children who were sick. And pray we did, fully aware of our absolute dependence on God. And, in some cases, the Lord would bring visible healing and restoration. It’s true. Finally I’m reminded of this passage:

2 Corinthians 12: 8 (The apostle Paul writes) Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 

Lord I’ll be honest I don’t like being weak. I want to be strong. I want to be able to handle things in my own power. Or perhaps get a little help from you, but mostly take care of it myself. Yet that isn’t the invitation you offer here. Instead of me being strong, you prefer I acknowledge my weakness so to that YOUR strength may shine through. Change my heart, O Lord, to make peace with weakness. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Come Lord Jesus…

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Psalm 10:1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? 2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised. 

As God’s people, Israel expected God’s protection from evil – from within and without. The psalmist here is calling God out for failing to deliver. Evil seems to be having its way in the eyes of the writer, so he calls on the Lord to intervene.

I’ve found myself asking similar questions lately. Seems like, in some cases, evil has the upper hand in our world. Conflict, violence, dissension are rampant. Come Lord Jesus. Come. May your peace rest on us. Amen.

God provides all that is needed…

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1 Chronicles 12:1 The following are those who came to David at Ziklag, while he could not move about freely because of Saul son of Kish; they were among the mighty warriors who helped him in war. They were archers, and could shoot arrows and sling stones with either the right hand or the left; they were Benjaminites, Saul’s kindred… From the Gadites there went over to David at the stronghold in the wilderness mighty and experienced warriors, expert with shield and spear, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were swift as gazelles on the mountains…21 They helped David against the band of raiders, for they were all warriors and commanders in the army. 22 Indeed from day to day people kept coming to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God. 

David was chosen by God to replace Saul as king of Israel, but Saul was certainly not going to cooperate with the succession. He resisted David, sending men to search for David to put him to death. So David was a young man with no army and no formal authority in Israel – fighting a king. The odds were not in David’s favor. Yet our passages tells of how God created an army for David from nothing – an “army of God” (v.22).

When God calls someone to serve, God also provides all that is needed. Even an army.

Lord give us grace to trust you, that you will give to us all we need to serve your purposes. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Why?

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Acts 12:1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.  The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 

You’ll remember that, among the 12 disciples of Jesus, there were three who were closest to Jesus and formed the primary group of senior leaders in the early church. They were Peter, James and John (James and John were brothers). Herod was persecuting Christians and went after these leaders, starting with James who was put to death. Next Herod arrested Peter. But instead of becoming a martyr like James, the Lord sent an angel to free Peter from prison – which was great news for sure.

The question that emerges for me in this story is why Peter was spared and James was not? Of course only God knows the answer to that question, but it’s a question I ask anyway. Similar questions emerge for me all the time. Why do some people prosper and others struggle – though they are both persons of faith? Why do some people recover from illness and others die? In many cases there doesn’t seem to be any logic or reason, which can be maddening.

Which of course has a way of sending me to my knees before the Lord, naming the truth that I just don’t understand. Perhaps this is the answer to the “why” question. Not knowing keeps me humble before the Lord. Heavenly Father give me peace in the midst of unanswerable questions. Amen.

Four squads was not enough…

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Acts 12:1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. 

We are told that Herod ordered “four squads of soldiers” to guard Peter, which is something on the order of 40-50 soldiers. To guard one man. By this time Peter was well known for demonstrating acts of God’s power in the name of Jesus. So Herod could not order the typical 1-2 guards for this special prisoner. Four squads would have been understood as ridiculous overkill by the original readers. But while Peter was in prison… the church was praying.

When God acts, no manner of earthly power can get in the way.

It’s important for me to remember this today. So many parts of our world are a mess right now it can seem as if evil has won. But with God there is always hope. Lord move with power this day. Bring light where there is darkness, hope where there is despair, joy where there is pain. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

It’s not about me…

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Acts 11:19 Now (Christians in Isreal) who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20 But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.

V.21 got my attention this morning. There were a great number of Christian converts because “the hand of the Lord was with them” – them being Christians fleeing persecution. In other words, it was God who had agency here, not the Christian evangelists.

This is a good word for me because I often freeze up when it comes to sharing my faith with others. Even though I’m a pastor. I doubt whether I have the right words or if the person is open to hearing what I would say. In other words, in my head I make it about “me”. This passage reminds me that God is the one working through me when I offer a kind word or a prayer or a testimony about life with Jesus.

Lord give me courage to be more bold when it comes to sharing my faith. Help me remember it’s about you, not me. Amen.

The Spirit blows where it will…

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Acts 10:44 While Peter was still speaking (to the household of Cornelius the Roman centurion), the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. 

I mentioned yesterday that, in much of the Old Testament, God was a tribal deity. God sided with Israel against other nations in protecting Israel and providing for Israel. So here we read about the apostle Peter proclaiming the gospel to a family of Gentiles (at God’s direction) – and the Holy Spirit being poured out among them. Surprise! Then, seeing no reason not to, they baptize the new Gentile believers in Jesus’ name. Again, in the theology of the day God was exclusive to Israel. The fact that Gentiles received the gospel and were baptized in the Holy Spirit broke the rules as they were known at that time.

I also note that the Holy Spirit comes on the people – THEN they are baptized in water. In our Lutheran tradition we teach that the Holy Spirit is given AT our water baptism. This passage, and several others in the New Testament, push back against this teaching. I’ve mentioned before in this space how I too experienced a separate encounter with God (baptism in the Holy Spirit) many years after being baptized in water. I can’t explain why that happened, I just know that it did.

I am reminded this morning that the Spirit blows where it will (John 3:8). And that we must always be prepared to be surprised by the Spirit, open to see the Spirit move in ways that defy our conventions. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

A covenant promise for everyone…

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Acts 10:34 Then Peter began to speak to (the people gathered at the home of the centurion named Cornelius): “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

If you read the Old Testament it’s clear that ours was a tribal God – a God for Israel, not for everyone else. God defended Israel, destroying her enemies and pushing out the original inhabitants of the Promised Land. A Jewish God for the Jewish people. But here we see a seismic shift in that paradigm as Peter says:

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

God was the one who encouraged the centurion Cornelius to send for Peter. God was the one who told Peter to go to Cornelius. God was the one who opened the hearts of Cornelius and his family to receive the gospel message and, in the next verses, be baptized in the name of Jesus. This was God’s doing and Peter knows it. He realizes that the gospel covenant in Jesus is far more inclusive than the first covenant of the law. The gospel is for “anyone who fears (God)”. This was a total game-changer for Israel and for all creation.

I’m not a Jew, so I am eternally grateful for the gospel, which is for me. For you. For everyone. Come Lord Jesus! Amen.

Freedom from cultural norms…

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Acts 10:About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 

Yesterday I wrote about the end of Acts 9 when we are told that the apostle Peter stayed with a tanner – one who prepares animal skins. It’s surprising because, according to the Jewish purity laws, staying with a tanner would make Peter unclean. But, Peter wasn’t the one driving the train at this point. It was the Holy Spirit.

So here we have another conflict with Jewish custom, this time with dietary laws. God tells Peter that all creatures are made clean by God, so he should eat whatever is placed before him. There’s a clear pattern here which we will see grow as we read through Acts.

The gospel will not be constrained by cultural Judaism.

I remember when the initial shutdown occurred in March and the church wondered if it was permissible to share communion when we weren’t in the same physical space. It’s a question we’d never had to wrestle with before. And I can tell you there was vigorous conversation among my colleagues for and against virtual communion. Of course, we never thought we would still be dealing with Covid into 2021. The matter has effectively sorted itself out.

Our world has changed and we have to learn how to change with it. Today I’m wondering what customs and norms will we have to let go of in order to thrive in 2021. Lord show us the way. Amen.