Why?

Standard

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…

Standard

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…

Standard

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…

Standard

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…

Standard

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…

Standard

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.

The rules have changed…

Standard

Acts 9:36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. 

In v.43 we read that Peter stayed with “Simon, a tanner”. Why include this vocational detail? One of my bible resources says, “a tanner carries the odors and blood of animals that would make him ‘unclean.’” I expect a good Jew would not have stayed with a tanner since close proximity to someone unclean would have made him ritually unclean as well. To me it’s a clue that the rules are about to change. The purity laws, dietary restrictions, and so on will not be allowed to stand in the way of the proclamation of the gospel.

At the start of this new calendar year it seems to me our rules are changing. The world is very different than it was this time last year, never to return. Peter could not have known just how radically his world had shifted, nor do I believe can we. But, like Peter, we don’t have to know what lies ahead. We just need to know Jesus, who will lead and guide us into the future. I don’t know much, but I know that.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Speaking boldly in the name of Jesus…

Standard

Acts 9:26 When (Saul) had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. 

In this passage Saul (who would become known as the apostle Paul) is introduced to the Christians in Jerusalem. They remember Saul as a persecutor of Christians so they don’t accept him right away, but Barnabas vouches for him. I’d probably be suspicious as well If I were in their shoes. The part that gets my attention this morning is the second part of v.27 in which Barnabas says of Saul that he “had spoken boldly in the name of the Lord”.

There was a time in my ministry when I spoke much more boldly about Jesus. Somewhere along the way I lost that, but I sense the Lord encouraging me to circle back to it. There is something powerful that happens when we speak a word in Jesus’ name. When we trust that the Lord can work through us. I don’t really know how else to describe it right now. I need to pray about it some more.

I wonder how the Lord might be calling you and me to speak boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus. To share a word with someone. To pray for them. To encourage them to embrace Jesus as Lord.

Lord show us how. Amen.

The unlikely apostle Paul…

Standard

Acts 9:19 For several days (Saul who would be known as the apostle “Paul”) was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

In the book of Acts we’re told that Saul, who was a highly respected young Pharisee, became the Christian apostle named Paul. This is the Paul who wrote a large % of what is now the New Testament. At first this conversion seems strange given that Saul persecuted Christians, throwing them in prison. He was not immediately trusted in early Christian circles for this reason. But over time it became clear why God had chosen Saul. Given his intimate knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, the law and the prophets, he was a powerful advocate for Jesus (v.22).

In a small way I can relate to Saul/Paul. I was not raised in a church-going family, which makes me somewhat different than many church leaders who have been active in the church from birth. It’s been a bit easier for me to see Christianity through the eyes of one who is new to the faith – as I once was. Over the years I believe I’ve lost some of that perspective, but I hope to never lose it completely.

Heavenly Father you call unlikely people to do your will. Give us grace to say yes to you, even when it doesn’t all seem to make sense. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Praise the Lord!

Standard

Psalm 150: 1 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! 2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! 3 Praise him with trumpet sound;  praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! 

It’s the final day of 2020 – and what a year it’s been.

I want to thank all of you who read this blog. I am well aware I’m not that great a writer, but I write anyway trusting that the Lord may do something of value through the words I share here. I’m grateful for you because you are a big part of what motivates me to show up in this space. I particularly appreciate your comments, whether they be affirming or challenging. It makes this space more dialogical.

As for our passage for today, I love the psalms because they reflect the gamut of the human experience. There is celebration and pain, life and death, victory and defeat, love and hate. Psalm 150 is a fitting ending to the book of psalms because it provides an appropriate last word. In good times and bad times, praise the Lord!

See you in 2021.