Life with God: Week 7 – Navigating the Doors of Ministry

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Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.  And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.  For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.  So there was much joy in that city. – Acts 8:4-8

 

“When one door closes, another one opens…”, is a saying made famous by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. It is a call to perseverance that goes a little further than, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” by taking into account the fact that sometimes things in life do not go according to plan. Sometimes we get thrown curveballs. Sometimes we just get thrown out. This was the case of the first church in Jerusalem. After the multiple arrests and persecution faced by the apostles, culminating with the stoning of Stephen, it became clear to the community of disciples that they were unwelcome. Just as their Lord Jesus before them was cast out and executed, they found that the city God had chosen for his temple long ago, had no tolerance for God’s people within her walls. They had persevered (tried again and again) in the face of persecution. Undaunted by jail, torture, and even death, they continued to preach. Unshaken by divisiveness and prejudice within their own group, they continued to live together in the hope of Christ’s return.

 

However, there came a point where, with Christ’s blessing, they shook the Jerusalem dust off their feet and moved on. Not all of them, mind you. Many of the Apostles stayed in or near Jerusalem. However, a great many of the more than 5,000 believers left for safer surroundings. One of these was Philip, the man who had only just been named one of the seven deacons, along with Stephen. He took the gospel north, to the city of Samaria and it appears that he continued preaching the word there, just as they had been doing in Jerusalem. This move was probably not according to his plans, as most of the church was expecting Jesus to come back at any moment. Indeed, we must remember the great stress they were all under. Many of them had already sold their possessions and probably did not have much to live on, let alone move to another city. They had become vagabonds, exiles from their own homes, all for the sake of Christ, and were now traveling through Israel and beyond, praying that God would provide them with daily bread. Their plan A had failed and now they were punting.

 

However, our plans – even our best attempts to understand God’s plan do not always fully grasp the big picture God is painting. Disheartened, Philip could easily have just quit and gone home. God’s own top people in Jerusalem apparently did not want to hear from God, why would anyone else? Despairing, he could have renounced his faith like the disciples did when Jesus was crucified, hiding out as far away from the Jewish leaders as he could get. He did neither. He understood what Bell would say over 1800 years later that when one door closes, another door opens.

 

Speaking of Bell, we typically only quote half of his line. The whole statement he made was, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” It is this second part of the statement that is the difference between Philip the Evangelist, whose ministry flourished in Samaria and beyond, and those who fall away disheartened and despairing: where we are looking. It is the difference between focusing our eyes on a particular door we are trying to get through and fixing our gaze on Jesus and going wherever He goes. Planning is important in ministry. Preparation is key to successfully engaging a community with the gospel or even in simply sharing your faith with your neighbor. However, planning and preparation cannot replace the simple obedience of staying close and following Christ.

 

God does not change his plans around at the last minute. We just fail to grasp the bigger picture. Philip’s move to Samaria was spoken of by God in the book of Genesis, when he promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed by him. This new ministry was commanded specifically by Jesus when he commanded his disciples to make disciples of all people, from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Many of these early Christians probably figured they were going to be the Jerusalem part of that plan, not the “ends of the earth” crew. Yet God had his plan and the gospel would not be stopped or even slowed by either the opposition or the comfort of the Christians. God’s love for His people will persevere and overcome any obstacles we, or anyone else may put in His path. When one door closes, God opens another one.

 

 

 

 

Life with God: Week 6 – The Ransomed God

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“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen.  Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  But it was Solomon who built a house for him.  Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:44-59

 

Many and varied are the masks of sin. Medieval Catholics placed sin in one of seven categories: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. I suspect that much of the articulation of sin for them was influenced by the Ancient Greek philosophers – specifically Aristotle. Aristotle (who lived almost 400 years before Christ) preached a doctrine of moderation. He, and the Medieval Catholics would have looked to something like Proverbs 30:8, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”, as their guiding light, hoping to keep from acting on sins like lust, but not to be so holy that they became prideful, to care only enough that they were not prone to excessive anger and wrath but not to become so detached that they fall into sloth… to work enough that they avoided envy, but not so much that they fell into greed and gluttony. It can become a complex system of understanding and managing sin – something we often practice today without understanding it or where it comes from and it often fuels the “little indiscretions” that litter our lives from time to time. Unfortunately, this teaching does not truly fit with either God portrayed in the Old Testament (“Be Holy as I am Holy”) or Jesus (“Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”). Jesus doesn’t ask us to micromanage sin – He asks us to follow and obey Him, keeping our eyes on Him rather than ourselves and our sins.

 

This, in a roundabout way, was what Stephen was trying to tell the Jewish leaders. You see, if we follow the path of moderation, rather than Jesus, we blind ourselves to one sin that does not fit in the seven categories… for it is one that only God’s people can commit: the ransom of God to the world. Throughout the Old and New Testament, as well as much of church history up to and even today, the people of God have struggled with the temptation to try to hold God hostage in one particular place and charge the world admission to come and see Him and His blessings. Granted, most would not be so bold as to bar entrance to visitors to our churches, but many churches may hold their ministry in reserve for those who have demonstrated more commitment and who are therefore more deserving of their help… at least in their perspective. Yet Stephen reminded the Jews, and he reminds us, that God does not simply hang around in the boxes we make to hold him – no matter how elaborate we design them.

 

The heart of the matter is this: we as Christians do not own either God or the Good News (Gospel) that He has. We receive Him into our hearts and are blessed by Him, but we do not own Him. If anything, it is the other way around. By receiving Christ as our Lord and Savior, we become His. It saddens me how often I hear worship songs and hymns whose basic theme is “Jesus is my best friend because He does this and that for me”, while there are relatively few songs that say “I am Jesus best friend too and here is how I serve Him”. Likewise, the precious gospel – “by grace we have been saved through faith, and not by works lest anyone should boast” is not ours to keep, but entrusted to us for our salvation and that we should then give it away. Faith, like love, is grows by giving it away.

 

Let us therefore not grow weary in doing good, nor in avoiding sin. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Finally, let us remember the words of Stephen, the first Saint of the Church, who reminded us that God does not dwell in houses made by hands nor in boxes dreamed by arrogant hearts. God seeks the redemption of this broken world and His word will accomplish what it is sent to do… with or without us. So let us be God’s and share His love freely, as He has asked us.

Life with God: Week 5 – Faith to Serve

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Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.  These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:1-7

 

The typical exhortation/sermon/homily/teaching from preachers and church leaders falls along this basic form:

  1. Reading or printing a passage of Scripture
  2. Anecdote or witty remark (typically story in their own lives or in current events) that loosely ties into a theme in the Scripture
  3. Explanation of the Scripture passage
  4. Pointing out how far we have fallen from the Biblical ideal
  5. One or two practical ways we can get back on the path to reaching that model in Scripture

 

I don’t always follow this model. Sometimes I simply mess up and fail to put in or emphasize one of those five points enough. Other times though, the Scripture itself – in relation to the people I minister with, simply calls for a different form. Today is one of those days.

 

Having served in about ten different churches and leading several para-church ministries (ministries outside an “official” church congregation), I have to stop and say that the two churches I now serve have some of the best attitudes towards the ministry of the laity in the church. When my people see a need, they do something about it. If a meeting is required, they have a meeting, but they do not let those meetings come to wasted words. They pray, visit, and minister to those outside of their own congregations. They love people as they are and encourage them to grow in Christ. They do not pretend to be any more than they are – people loved by God, sent into His world to share that love.

 

Now, I realize that some of the motivations behind this attitude about service may come from a lack of other options at times, perhaps not quite enough people to pass the buck along to without looking rather silly, or even simply out of a sense of family values – that mom and dad always did it before me… but the truth is, the Early Church may not have been that much different. Most of the time people made decisions about serving in the church, about ministering to one another, it was not in response to a voice calling down from the sky or any other form of divine intervention. The vast majority of the time ministry happened in the early church, it was because someone (who was already prayerful) saw a need that they could help with and stepped up to the plate.

 

I am not attempting to minimize the activity of the Holy Spirit in this work. To do so goes against Scripture and certainly Luke’s intent in writing Acts. Rather, I am pointing out that often the miraculous works of God follow after our faithful steps in service. John Ortberg, in his aptly titled book explains – “You can’t walk on water until you get out of the boat.”, reminding us that we, like Peter, often do not experience the miraculous wonders of God until we take those first few steps onto uncharted waters.

 

The Scripture above tells the story of one of the first problems in the early church: the unequal distribution of food. Prejudice. A division within the blessed unity they all had experienced together and a cut to the heart of their Koinonia. Without inspired dreams or heavenly portents, they made a decision to put seven trustworthy, Spirit-filled, and wise men in charge of serving the food. Not very exciting. However, these food-servers would go on to change the fate of the church more than many of the apostles. They understood that faith is not running from one miracle to the next, hoping that one day you will be there right as it happens. Faith is walking in prayerful obedience and finding those miracles in the footsteps you leave behind.

 

Thank you for being faithful churches.

Life with God – Week 4: Ministry in the Spirit

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Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.  None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.  And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.  The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. – Acts 5:12-16

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:6

God’s gifts are meant to be shared. Some Christians have a belief that the goal of Christian faith is to achieve a belief in God, salvation from Jesus Christ, or perhaps an anointing of the Holy Spirit. Still others might amend that statement by claiming that we receive rather than achieve those things from God – that it is His work, not our own that brings about our salvation. I am inclined to agree. However, our story with God does not simply end there. God intends us to take the gifts we have received and share them with the rest of the world.

The New Testament has a number of lessons on sharing God’s gifts. Jesus told parables about servants who were given money from their master for the purpose of investing. Two of those servants took their gift and increased it by putting it to work for them. The last servant though, too worried about losing his gift, simply hid it away. When the master returned, his gift was taken away from him and given to one of the other servants. Likewise, Jesus also curses a fig tree that bears no fruit and tells a parable about a barren fig tree that gets one more year… one more chance to bear fruit, after which, it will be cut down and uprooted, and likely replaced by a tree that will bear fruit. The gospels themselves do not end with a resurrected Messiah telling his friends not to worry, that they are saved, that it is all over now they can relax. No instead they are given a mission: take what you have and share it with the rest of the world.

That is exactly what Peter, Andrew, John, and the rest of the disciples did. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they took that gift of God and spread it everywhere they went. Indeed, some of the healing accounts we have from the Apostles almost seem to show the power of the Spirit pouring out of them and touching everyone they pass, whether they are intending to give them anything or not. We can see that Peter and the other Apostles did not consider themselves healers primarily, but preachers and teachers of Christ, and yet, the people of Jerusalem have the distinct impression that they can be healed just by having Peter’s shadow pass over them in the street. Why is that?

I believe that this incredible acts of healing, perhaps without the specific intention of the Apostles shows us the very thing Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding the gifts of God. They are not ours. Those gifts, that power of the Holy Spirit, belong to God and He can use them (and us) sometimes without our seeing or understanding everything. Peter could have let all this power go to his head and set himself up as a healer and miracle worker in the city. He would have had a huge following, both among the Jews and the Romans, and would likely have become very famous and popular, and perhaps even wealthy. Peter could also have panicked at the people lined up to be near him and these healing miracles, choosing to flee from these crowds in the streets and shunning public except for the occasions he had preaching and teaching in the Temple. After all, healing miracles are wonderful, but Peter’s first spiritual gift at Pentecost was preaching, not healing. Also, he could have rationalized that there was little point in healing people physically when he could be teaching them how to gain eternal life instead.

Yet, Peter did none of these things. He healed when he had opportunity. He preached when he had opportunity. He led the church when he had opportunity. When God worked miracles around him that He had not planned on, He let God do it. For a person with so much influence and the courage to stand up to the chief priests of Jerusalem, Peter had a remarkable amount of humility when it came to allowing God to work through him, in whatever way God chose.

We all could learn from Peter’s example. Too often we hold so tight to our salvation that we fail to share it, fulfilling our purpose as God’s ambassadors in our fallen world. Too often we choose one or two ways we feel comfortable serving God and neglect anything else under the reasoning that we do not have those particular spiritual gifts. Too often we become so focused on doing God’s work according to our best laid plans, that we miss out on important opportunities to share God’s grace through ways we simply consider too insignificant for God to possibly use. In all of these instances, we miss the mark of what it means to be a Christian, and together we miss the mark of what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ in the world. Instead of trying to serve Christ according to our fears, ambitions, comfort levels, or comprehension, we should follow Peter’s example and serve Christ by faith. I expect Peter found his own inspiration from Jesus Himself, who told his disciples that He only did what the Father asked of Him. There was no special formula to decide when to heal and when not to heal, when to preach and when not to preach, what to do, what to say… Jesus did it all by being connected to His Heavenly Father, through the Holy Spirit, and Peter did the same thing. Let us carry on where they left off, in the same spirit, with the same Holy Spirit, to lead and empower God’s work, through us, in our world.