Life with God: Week 11 – the Fellowship of the Saints

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Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.  But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.  And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).  So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
– Acts 11:19-30

 

“In the world there must bee of all sorts.” [1620 T. Shelton tr. Cervantes’ Don Quixote ii. vi.]

 

 

    You’ve heard the saying: “it takes all kinds…”. Now you know where it came from. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes: one of the earliest novels written. Written between 1605 and 1615 AD, it tells the story of a man who dreams of being a knight in shining armor, but whose actual adventures end up being a bit closer to a Saturday Night Live skit. Well maybe a bunch of skits because it’s a long book, full of many epic misadventures. The quote comes from one of the many places in the book where Quixote’s friends are trying to talk some sense into him and let him know that the age of knights riding off on grand adventures have passed and that knights can do good work at home as well… but Don Quixote tells them that it takes all kinds (of knights), and some of them are made to be constantly on the move, in the sun, rain, and snow, and always looking for a new adventure. This is of course implying that, while it may be okay for some knights to sit at home, but not for Quixote. He’s the one that always has to be looking for trouble.

    Churches, like armies of knights, also take all types. Also, as in Don Quixote, there are sometimes people in churches that seem to intentionally look for trouble… people who, when things get stirred up, seem to always be near the center of the mess. People like Barnabas – who stood up and vouched for a former persecutor of the church… a man who stood by approvingly, while Barnabas’s friend Stephen was beaten to death with rocks. Letting someone like that in the doors of the Church is just asking for trouble, and yet, Barnabas took Saul by the hand and led him in, standing as his defender against the criticism and concerns of the Apostles. People like Barnabas who, upon hearing that the Gentiles are receiving the Holy Spirit as well as Jews, do not stop to think about the implications of inviting uncircumcised former pagans (and even Roman soldiers) to fellowship and eat with, pray beside, and even celebrate communion with, will have on the very young and very fragile community of believers. People who seem to have a nose for trouble and lack the sense to stay out of it. And yet… and yet… and yet… the in the whole New Testament, only Barnabas was ever called “a good man“, and he joins the ranks of Stephen, Philip, and a few others, as being described as “full of the Holy Spirit”. I can recall a person trying to call Jesus Himself “good teacher” to which Jesus remarked that only God is good – so for Barnabas to be called “a good man” is a steep compliment.

    The Church also took people like Peter, who had to be told over and over and over again until he finally understood – and even then, sometime he would “forget”. Three times Jesus told him he was going to be crucified in Jerusalem and rise on the third day, and Peter didn’t understand or believe it until it actually happened. He swore up and down that he could never deny Jesus, and yet he did that three times. Three times Jesus asked him, if he truly loved Him, to feed his sheep. Three times, God sent Peter a vision telling him that whatever God made clean could not be called unclean, regardless of tradition and past teaching, and Peter would still struggle with this later in the life of the Church. It was upon this slow learner that Christ bestowed the keys of the Kingdom and said, upon this rock He would build the Church and the gates of hell could not stand against it.

    Let’s not forget Saul/Paul, probably the biggest name in the book of Acts and of much of the New Testament. From the church’s perspective, he was considered a menace, conspirator, and murderer of people just for following Jesus. He was a Pharisee, one of the groups of Jews that the Christians, and Jesus Himself had problems with, and a Roman citizen as well – giving him political ties with the nation holding Israel under oppression. He had no credentials for starting churches or teaching in them since He never met or followed Jesus in the days that Jesus was alive on earth, unlike the other, more than 100 disciples there at Pentecost. Why would anyone let this man come near their church?

    These are just the top names mentioned in Acts and do not account for the beggars, tax collectors, former lepers, prostitutes, and other unsavory type characters that made up the early Church. Indeed, who is to say that Paul himself was not the first to write about it taking all types, when he wrote about the Body of Christ having many members. Maybe he even got that idea from Barnabas, whose actions certainly seemed to support that belief. Perhaps it was Peter, in his slow processing of the experiences he had with God finally realized it. Regardless of who discovered it first, it remains true both then and today: it takes all types to make a church.

    We rejoice because of that, for one set of gifts cannot take care of all the work there is to do. We also have confidence in our diversity, knowing that Christ calls us all individually, and if He didn’t have a reason for us being part of His church, we wouldn’t be there. There is a place and purpose for all of us in God’s Kingdom, and God will guide us to it, if we will only seek Him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life with God – Week 9: Turbulence in Ministry

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Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”  But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me.  Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air.  And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’  But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’  This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven.  And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea.  And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’  As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”  When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

– Acts 11:1-18

 

Sometimes I wonder why Jesus led the disciples through those three years of ministry in the villages of Galilee. Some of those moments of teaching make more sense than others. For instance, the way Jesus ministered alongside the disciples for awhile and then sent them off in pairs to follow his model: going from town to town – preaching, healing, and casting out demons. They were not perfect, but they would come back to Jesus and the group with their stories to tell… stories of joy and stories of frustration. Then there were other times, such as Jesus asleep in the boat as a storm almost overtook him and the disciples. Another time while they were boating, Jesus came to them walking on the water and called Peter to come out and join him. Those times, while good lessons in trusting Jesus, sometimes seem slightly less practical for those of us in the landlocked Midwest with no intention of trying to plod our way across our ponds and lakes.

    

Storms come in many forms, as Peter found out, and the turbulent waters he tread upon the sea of Galilee were small compared to what he faced in Jesus’ final days on earth and the weeks and months that would follow. After Jesus’ death, the disciples had all tried to find some kind of peace and solace in a new routine – some of the disciples even going back to their old livelihoods. The Resurrection turned everything upside down. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples tried to establish themselves as a small community of prayer and piety, waiting for Christ’s return. Pentecost shook that foundation as the Holy Spirit moved among them, spreading God’s kingdom out among the people in Jerusalem. Following Pentecost, the believers sought to make a life together as a community within the city of Jerusalem, and were succeeding, despite conflict from both inside and outside their group. Then persecution broke out and no one was safe in Jerusalem anymore. Within perhaps only weeks of this, Saul the persecutor of Christians had become a believer and was preaching the name of Jesus in Damascus, and not just Saul, but the Samaritans were becoming believers as well as the Holy Spirit poured out upon them as well as the Jews. Now even the Gentiles were becoming believers and recipients of the same Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ himself had imparted upon the apostles. Roman soldiers – former worshippers of pagan gods and the emperor of Rome. What was the world coming to? All of Peter’s attempts and the attempts of the early church to settle down and establish themselves were constantly overturned, seemingly by God’s own hand. How could anyone continue to go forward in the face of that constant change?

 

What about the changes going on in our own communities as well? The stock market acts like one of those roller coasters with twice as many sudden drops as gradual inclines. Insurance rates rise while the number of jobs that provide insurance disappear. Technology has slowed as industry seems to focus on refurbishing old ideas rather than come out with new ones. National morale and faith in our government is low among liberals and conservatives alike. Our churches continue to struggle to reach not just one, but often two and three different generations in our communities. These are turbulent times in which we live. How can we cope, let alone live as ‘more than conquerors’ in these times?

 

The Romans sought to grab control of anything that threatened their way of life. The Pharisees believed that if we would just live right, God would reward us for our good behavior. Peter however, remembered the word of the Lord. One of the most important roles of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to bring back to our memory God’s word – not simply for winning arguments or bible trivia contests – but to help us understand where God is and what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times. As Peter watched the Holy Spirit poured out on that Roman household, unclean gentiles and enemies of the Jews though they may have been, he remembered Christ telling him three years before – “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” and through that memory, he was able to make the connection and understand what it meant to truly be part of God’s Kingdom. To be baptized by God was when willing hearts opened their doors to God’s Spirit, Who came and lived inside them, cleansing and transforming them from the inside out. The baptism by water, although it was an important experience and sign for the people, was the outward sign – the public proclamation, of the real act of salvation that happened between the person and God.

 

That does not, as many have claimed, make salvation and entry into God’s Kingdom, a purely private experience. It makes it an experience that we, either as individuals, or as the church, cannot control. Peter did not save these gentiles – God did. All Peter had to do was show up (which took more humility and courage in this case than we may read at face value) and tell Cornelius and his household about Jesus. God could have sent Cornelius a postcard with the kind of message that Peter brought them, but I believe he wanted Peter to be present, not as the lead actor in this event, but as a witness… so that Peter could tell the rest of God’s people exactly how powerful God’s love was… how no boundary could stand between it and a heart that was ready to receive it. If Jerusalem did not want to receive God, then God would find his lost children among the enemies of the Jews.

 

Let us therefore turn aside from our fruitless attempts at controlling things that are beyond our control. Let us give up trying to earn God’s good grace. Instead, let us take example from Peter and remember the word of the Lord and let it guide us in our understanding of how we are to live in turbulent times. Incidentally, if you have not read or heard God’s word, it will probably be difficult for you to remember it – so we need to return to the Scriptures on a regular basis. Jesus Himself, and his followers after Him took comfort in knowing God’s word and living a life guided by God’s word and prayer and that allowed them to find peace and rest, even amidst the assailing storms in life and to walk in grace and victory over the turbulent waters of constant change.

 


 

Life with God – Week 9: Ministry in the Field

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So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),  you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.  And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.  And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

– Acts 10:34-48

Rev. Elvyn Hamilton shared last night at our Frankfort district that there are at least 2 models of ministry. The first model is the Temple. In the Temple model, we build a house for God and invite everyone to come and join us as we meet God together. We pick the time, the place, set the atmosphere, the music, the dress code, the words of the prayers, etc. and we invite the rest of our community to come worship God with us. The second model is the Mission Field. In this model, we go out to the people of our community, knowing God has already gone before us, and we learn their language, their music, their culture, how they work, play, and live. We then look for the ways that God is already at work in their community as well as new ways to engage them with the gospel.

In Scripture we see that the Temple model of ministry is the primary, if not exclusively used in the Old Testament. The Mission Field model, on the other hand, appears much more frequently in the Gospels (with Jesus’ own preaching ministry) and remains a dominant push in the book of Acts. While certain contemporary church leaders take this to be license to reject Temple-model ministries (and the multitude of churches who practice them) in order to fully embrace the Mission Field model of ministry, I can assure you that both models are found throughout the entire Bible – Old and New Testaments. There is no competition between the models nor is one superior to the other. Rather, there is a place for both in all churches. Indeed, we need both.

In our established churches, we typically favor the Temple model and neglect the Mission Field, or try to compensate by sending funds to missionaries elsewhere while neglecting the mission fields in our own communities. John Wesley experienced this in the church of England when he was invited to preach in outdoor, public settings by George Whitefield – a fellow preacher. He writes:

“I left London and in the evening expounded to a small company at Basingstoke, Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” – from The Journal of John Wesley, Thursday, March 29, 1739.

St. Peter also experienced this shift in ministry needs, from the emphasis of one model to another. Even though he had followed Jesus as the Lord preached on hillside and in the fields, and even though he himself was preaching in the streets on the day of Pentecost – Peter’s default was always that the people of God should gather in Jerusalem in, or at least near the Temple. When persecution broke out and the believers began to spread around Israel and beyond, Peter finally began to see that the ministry that happens outside the church is every bit as important as the ministry that happens inside the church. Not only that, but God was, and is, actively pursuing people who had not yet conformed to the traditional standards of his people. What do I mean by that? Luke reports that the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles – those who had not been circumcised, did not know the Scriptures, probably did not know the Ten Commandments even… and yet God still met them and filled them with the same Spirit that the Apostles had, and that Jesus Himself had before them. Of course, you may think, this makes sense because Christ initiated a new covenant, a new faith, and we do not have to become Jews first before we can become Christians. Yes, but read on. The Holy Spirit fell on these people, and filled them up so that they were declaring God’s glory and praise in many languages, just like Pentecost – and yet, these people had not even been baptized! They were pure pagans, through and through – but God was able to meet them right where they lived, in the middle of Pagan territory, and work a miracle in transforming them before they ever even learned any of the rules of how to be a good church member. That kind of red tape may stop us, from time to time as a church, but it has never stopped God – and it never will.

Join with me this week as we pray for those mission fields around us: our neighbors, our friends, our relatives, the people we work and shop beside, and those whom we pass several times a week but too often fail to really see… and let us pray that God would open our eyes to what He is already doing in their lives and help us to respond to that work as His instruments of grace and love.


Life with God: Week 8 – Healing in the New Testament

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Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.  There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed.  And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose.  And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. – Acts 9:32-35

With all the healings that were performed through Peter, it is strange that we remember him less as a great healer and more for his take-charge attitude. Upon reflection, however, no one in the New Testament is particularly heralded as a healer, other than perhaps Jesus Himself. I find this odd… very odd, for at least two specific reasons.

First of all, one of the longer gospels and the book of Acts were written by Luke, a man who is a doctor himself and should be able to appreciate the healings that take place better than most. Indeed, Luke generally takes more healings into account than the other gospel writers. However, he gives very little credit to the Christian ministers through whom these miraculous works were done. The typical pattern of healings in Luke’s works are: a disciple (or Jesus Himself) meets someone who is sick or grievously injured, Luke gives an account of the injury – often telling how long the person has suffered, the healer tells them they are healed (in some cases touching them), the victim realizes they are healed, and finally, many of the witnesses of this miracle turn to God. We often get more information about the particular illness or injury than the person performing the healing. Perhaps it is Luke who is more fascinated with what is being healed than in who is performing it. Perhaps as a doctor, he wants us to understand the varieties and depths of healing that can come through the power of the Holy Spirit…

However, my second question is: why the crowds do not celebrate Peter and the disciples more as healers? Jesus picked up a reputation as a healer, and there was at least one instance shortly after Pentecost where the crowds tried to worship Peter and John for their healing abilities… but both were short-lived. Certainly Peter addressed that false belief in Jerusalem, but what about in Samaria or in the surrounding villages where he, as well as the other Apostles, and even believers like Philip performed healings. Knowing that the early church still had a lot to figure out about the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the miracles that were performed in Christ’s name – I find it hard to believe that the crowds did not look to them often for healing.

What about those who came for healing but did not receive it? The New Testament is largely silent regarding such people, nor does it claim that every person was healed either. Several specific individuals were raised from the dead. Many, many more were not. Why would God demonstrate such awesome power in some cases and not in others?

There are no easy answers when it comes to understanding the ways of God. There are, however, some landmarks, milestones upon the road to knowing our Lord that point us further on the way. I believe it was just last week that one of our members at bible study noted that God seemed to reserve healing for times when onlookers will see and turn their hearts back to God… and there may be some insight in that. Almost all of the healing miracles happen out in public, and the few that happen indoors usually involved a crowd waiting there at hand or just outside. However, not all are. The shadows of Peter and John appear to bring healing to the people in Jerusalem, perhaps with or without their own volition or conscious involvement. Jesus Himself once heals ten lepers and only one of the ten returns as His disciple and there are no onlookers besides His disciples traveling with Him. Maybe the healings are reserved for those who have been suffering unjustly… Yet, what do we do with the man who is brought back from the dead after falling out of a window because he fell asleep during Paul’s sermon?

I think we need to remember that this healing power comes to us through the Holy Spirit, not primarily from us, nor from those early disciples and apostles of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, whose Hebrew name means both breath and wind is no more under our control than the wind that blows outside our windows. The wind blows where it will; we can only hear, feel, and respond to it. Nevertheless, we do know that the wind blows out of areas of high pressure and into areas of low resistance… and perhaps, as Bob Tuttle used to tell me, God’s Spirit too moves into the places, the communities, the homes, and the hearts of least resistance. Does that mean that we need only open ourselves to God to receive the healing we seek? No. It means, by opening ourselves to God we will receive His Spirit, and whatever blessings God chooses to send to manifest in us. For some it is healing. For some it is an ability to preach courageously in the face of persecution. For yet others, it may be the ability to make the meager supplies of 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread feed 5,000 people. Whatever form the blessing takes, you can be sure there will be a calling that comes with it… for regardless of whether God only brings healing when there is a sizeable audience or not, His blessings are given to be shared – we are blessed that we might become blessings ourselves.

Perhaps it is Paul, one who knows both healing and suffering that shows us the closest understanding of God’s intentions in healing. Upon Paul’s conversion, God told Ananias (a believer sent to care for him), “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”  But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:11-15) So even in his call to ministry, even as his blindness will be healed, God calls Paul to “suffer for the sake of my name.”

Later, a more mature Paul would write this to the Church at Corinth:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Perhaps Luke, no stranger to sickness, injury, and suffering, understood as well or better than us, that there are things greater than healing, and that maybe the greatest miracle comes in the Name given Jesus in the beginning of Luke’s gospel: Immanuel, which means God with us, for if God is with us, what in all creation can stand against us?