Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day 61: The Offering

A good portion of these chapters is taken up with the offering that Paul is bringing to Jerusalem, and that he hopes the Corinthians will contribute generously to.  In Macedonia, they astonished Paul with their generosity, and it might seem that he is shaming the Corinthians (a somewhat wealthier congregation) to do their part.  It is not that they are not going to give anything; he wants them to (cheerfully) give generously, not just a little.

Paul goes back and forth -- give generously, he tells them.  But then he will say, but I'm not saying you should give above your means, just what is appropriate.  Then again, "God loves a cheerful giver."  But  again, it's not what you don't have that counts, but what you do have.  He doesn't seem to want them to give out of guilt or compulsion, but freely, but this is really really important to him.  He wants it to be as important to them.

I think I understand this.  I want people in my congregation to give, and be generous and support the mission of the church, but I feel conflicted about it, too.  I don't want the widows on fixed incomes to hear the message and  give more generously than they can afford.  But then again, I do know there are people out there who can do more than they are doing right now, and I hope to inspire them.  Then again, I really want people to hear the central message -- the message of the overflowing grace and generosity of God, more than anything else.  I would never want people to think that God's love was dependent on their giving.

So, I think I can understand a little of what is running through Paul's mind.

Perhaps this is why I latch onto that one verse, "for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes, so that by his poverty we might become rich"

Again, I'm surprised by some of the things that Paul says.  He has to justify himself (or feels like he does.)  He tells them that he is shy when he is with them, but bold in his letters (which is a fascinating detail to me; I imagine that Paul-in-person would be much like the letters).  He also says that he is quiet and unassuming in person, not eloquent; but he does write eloquently.  Again, this is not the way I imagine Paul.  I may be reading into his words here, but it seems to me that perhaps the Corinthians have heard a flashier preacher of late, and they are wondering if this Paul fellow is really all that he is cracked up to be.

(sigh).  People are often taken in by the flashy public speaker.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 60: Treasure in Clay Jars

I'll admit it:  embedded in these four chapters of 2 Corinthians are some of my favorite verses in the New Testament:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ; there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new!"
 "For the love of Christ controls us, for we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died."
"We have this treasure in clay jars so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn't come from us."

Paul is unleashing persuasive powers on the Corinthians.  In his first letter, he admonished them; now he's trying to paint a picture of the riches of the gospel, in order to convince them of the beauty and truth of the message he brings.

It seems that Paul still has competition for respect among the Corinthians; he still has to make his case that he ought to be listened to and respected as an apostle.  But it also appears that his warnings have borne fruit; he believes that even though he made the church in Corinth sad, that they are turning from their sins and returning to God, and that is a good thing.

For a long time I thought that the verses at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 "even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day" were about eternal life, and the "building from God" was simply about heaven.

But now I see it a little more expansively.  I think our "inner nature" doesn't refer to a spiritual reality apart from our bodies, but that our "inner nature" and our "outer nature" have to do with the difference between how the world judges us and how God sees us.  So, for example, "the world" judged Jesus in a certain way because of what they saw:  we saw a poor carpenter who preached justice and who died a criminal's death.  But God saw him differently; God saw that he lived the kind of life that was blessed by God; that he was, in fact, God's son.

So, invisibly, God's grace and love is working in is, to renew our inner nature.  We might be experiencing hardship and trials, but that is not what defines our life.

That's what Paul is telling the Corinthians, both about them and about himself.  He is experiencing hardship, and frustration and poverty and persecution.  But that doesn't mean that he is a failure as an apostle.  And  it is the same with the Corinthians.  God is with them not only in their success, but in their failure, and is working through them.  They can't judge God's favor by what they see on the outside.

At the close, it seems that none of the words I have written are half as powerful as Paul's own:

"If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new."

We do have this treasure in clay jars, God's grace somehow shines through in the clay jars of our own imperfect lives, in our own imperfect words, in our own imperfect actions.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day 59: Paul Writes to the Corinthians Again (beginning)

So after Paul writes a somewhat critical letter to the church at Corinth,  he decides not to visit them again just yet, but writes to them again.  He begins by, again and again, speaking of the comfort of God in times of persecution and trouble.  These are verses we now read often at funerals.  Paul is speaking of one who brings the promise of God's comfort in Christ to people and one who has been through trouble and needs comfort himself.  He and his companions have been through hardships of many kinds in their missionary journeys.

One of the reasons Paul is delaying though, has to do with that other letter he wrote to Corinth, the one in which he was critical of them.  It is clear (and will become clearer as this letter goes on) that Paul feels that the Corinthians are unfairly mistrustful of him, and he needs to re-assert his credentials as an apostle.  He does have their best interests at heart.  He may have changed his plans, but he is not unreliable in what he preaches.  He is not (and Christ is not) "yes and no" to them, but only "yes."

Paul also contrasts himself with missionaries who preach the word for profit.  The only profit Paul seeks is the conversion of hearts to the gospel of Christ.  He feels as if they are requiring "Letters of Recommendation", but Paul feels that the churches he has started, churches filled with people following the way of Christ, should be the only letter of recommendation needed.

He goes on to contrast the glory of Moses in front of the ten commandments, with the glory of Christ.   Moses was able to stand in front of God, but the glory was too great to bear at that time, so he had to veil his face when he came down the mountain.  Paul writes that now, we are being transformed, so that we will be able to see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Day 58: The Resurrection of the Dead

Finally, Paul gets to another controversy that the Corinthians are involved in:  whether the dead are raised or not.  Apparently this is another disagreement that the Corinthians have, and Paul meets it head on, and ends up with one of the most beautiful (and oft-quoted) chapters in the New Testament.

It appears that the Corinthians do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, because one of the arguments he uses is that, if you aren't raised from the dead, that means that Jesus wasn't raised either.  He also appeals to the witnesses to the resurrection:  Cephas (Peter), the Twelve, 500 disciples, James, and then, finally, to Paul.  (Note that when he sees Jesus on the road to Damascus, it is more like a vision, but it is still proof to him that Jesus has been raised.)

Here's what I don't like about Paul:  he doesn't mention Mary Magdalene, or any of the other women.  Nothing.  Is it because women are considered to be unreliable witnesses?  Still, all of the gospels put the women first....

He's pretty blunt:  if you don't believe in some sort of resurrection, for yourself and for Jesus, then your faith is in vain, and you are dead in your sins.  In other words, the resurrections means victory over sin, the possibility of new living, and victory over death itself.

He tries to describe resurrected bodies (with limited success); they will be very different than the physical bodies we have now, just as a tree is different than the seed that is planted.  They will be real, but spiritual bodies, designed to live in a new realm, a new reign.  And this new reign is the purpose and end of our faith.

Chapter 16 brings greetings and a recommendation to for them to care for Timothy, as well as final words of encouragement and exhortation.  This is a congregation that Paul has corrected, warned and yelled at.  But he ends by saying, "My love is with all of you in Christ Jesus."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Day 57: Spiritual Gifts, Love, Spiritual Gifts

If you want to know something about what the church as "the body of Christ" means, you want to read first Corinthians 12.  There Paul uses a metaphor for the body politic for the Christian community.  It was common to talk about the community, the city, the state as a "body," where there were many members, and where each member had a part.  So Paul wants the Corinthians to consider that they are united in one common purpose, even though they are diverse in gifts.  Paul, of course (as always) tweaks the metaphor so that the weaker members have greater honor.

And then he puts all of the talk about the body in the context of spiritual gifts, gifts given to the Corinthians, but for the common good.  That seems to be a growing edge for the Corinthians, who love spiritual gifts, the glitz and glamour of them, but don't seem to get the idea that the purpose of gifts is to share and to build up the body, rather than to divide and sow contention.

Chapter 14 is an entire chapter devoted mostly to one of the spiritual gifts:  speaking in tongues.  Although Paul is careful to note that tongues is one of the gifts of God, and he also boasts that he "speaks in tongues more than you all", he gives careful guidelines to the use of this gifts, and also seems to disparage it.  (I'll just come right out and say that I don't understand what Paul means when he says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers.  Especially since he contradicts himself afterwards by saying that if unbelievers come into your church and hear you speaking in tongues, they will think you are crazy.)

Speaking in tongues still seems to be controversial even today.  Some churches deny that the phenomenon exists (it was supposed to have died out after the apostolic era.)  Others make tongues the sign of a more mature faith.  Where are you at?

Then, in the middle, is Chapter 13.  Often read at weddings (although there is no word about marriage here), this beautiful chapter seems sometimes out of place.  In fact, you can take chapter 13 out and read  chapter 12 and go directly to 14 and it won't seem like anything is missing.  Where does chapter 13 come from?  and why is it here?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.

As for tongues, they will cease.

Maybe in the middle of all the arguing and the glitziness of spiritual gifts, Paul wants to set down the most important things, remind them of what it worth seeking, of what they have already been given.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Day 56: Eating and Drinking and Appropriate Dress, in Worship and Out

Paul continues speaking about the issue of eating and drinking, circling back first to remind his readers of the unfaithfulness of some of the Israelites back when they were wandering in the wilderness.  Don't grumble or complain or wander away!  He warns them.  Be vigilant! he says.  Everyone in the wilderness had come through the Red Sea, but that didn't stop them from losing their way later on, forgetting their freedom, and focussing on idols instead.

Eating and drinking is connected with relationships, right relationships, and with our neighbors.  So Paul says, it's not that eating meat sacrificed to idols is either good or bad, but it's the effect it has on our dinner companions that makes a difference, and reveals our own hearts.  If you eat meat sacrificed to idols it won't harm you.  But if someone tells you, "Hey, this is meat that was sacrificed to idols," then maybe you shouldn't, because that might cause your dinner companions to stumble.  It's all about what is harmful or good for your neighbor, and for your neighbor's faith.

Perhaps that's what is going on in Paul's convoluted arguments about women praying with their heads covered.  Paul says women should pray with their heads covered because "a woman has authority over head head."  I'll just come right out and tell you I don't know what that means.  And though Paul says that a woman should keep her head covered because "man was created first, and then woman" and that "man is the image of God and woman the image of man", later on he admits that now "men come from women" (biology).  (by the way, in Genesis 1, both men AND women are made in the image of God.  Wish I had Paul right here with me so we could have a talk about that.)

Then Paul returns to the subject of eating and drinking, but this time he is talking about the fellowship of Christians, and the Lord's supper.  In the early church, oftentimes the community would share a meal as well as the Lord's supper, and it appears that in Corinth, the community meal has become the occasion for some to be gluttons and other to go hungry.  There is no sharing going on, and this is part of what bothers Paul.  So, later on, when he talks about eating and drinking worthily, and discerning the body, I don't think he is just talking about the "Real Presence," but he is talking about discerning the Body of Christ in the community, and eating and drinking honoring one another as bearers of Christ.

Again, for Paul, it's all about relationships, about how we treat one another, and how we treat one another reveals the condition of our own soul.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 55: What to Do, What Not to Do

In this section of the letter, Paul gives marriage advice to the Corinthians.  It's fair to say that it might be confusing advice.  Don't get married, unless you are having a hard time controlling yourself, in which case, get married.  If you are widowed, stay single.  If you are already married, don't get a divorce.  Single is best, except if being single is too hard for you.  If you are single, you can be single-mindedly devoted to the Lord.  (Theoretically.)  But you possibly might find yourself too tempted to sin if you are single.  In that case, get married.  But, marriage is hard.  I want to warn you about that.  (vs. 28).  I have not ever heard this verse quoted in a wedding sermon.  (Another note:  Paul uncharacteristically calls much of this chapter his opinion.  Perhaps he would be shocked to find out that it got into the Bible.)

There seems to be an abrupt shift again, while Paul gives advice regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols, one of the many controversies of the Corinthian church.  Again, there is a difference between theory and practice.  In theory, they are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they realize that the idol is not real, and the meat is "just meat"; there is nothing especially holy or unholy about it.

BUT, Paul writes, if there are people for whom eating meat causes them to doubt, who wonder if they are sinning when they eat it, or it their consciences bother then, then we should be willing to abstain so that we don't shake their faith.  Again, what is important is how our actions affect our neighbor.

Finally, Paul addresses the issue of compensation for apostles.  He seems to be arguing that he has a right to make a living by the gospel (good for pastors to know!).  After all, the priests got to eat the food that was in the temple (to use one example).  Paul seems to feel that he and Barnabas have been singled out for special criticism in this regard.  Even so, Paul says that even though he could be compensated for his work, he is voluntarily choosing not to be paid, because he wants to do everything possible to be blameless in their eyes.

Well, maybe not exactly blameless, but he wants to work in a way that will make his witness there credible, that will make his witness take root.  So he says that he tries to be all things to all people, to those under the Law, he is under the Law, to those outside the Law he is outside the Lord.

All things to all people.  Who can really pull it off?  Paul is willing to do anything to make Christ real.   And he's intense.  Reading his letters makes me wonder what it would have been like to meet him....

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 54: Corinth is sort of like a Soap Opera

Or, at least that's what it seems like, reading Paul's next three chapters.  They've been staying up late in Corinth, and engaging in some actions that some people won't do.  And even if they aren't all behaving immorally, they are not calling into account one of their own who is (ahem) sleeping with his father's wife, for example.

The Corinthians brag that they are free -- they are free, right?  That means they can do whatever they want, right?  Paul is all for freedom, but thinks that the Corinthians might have misunderstood him.

Of course, that's not all of it.  Paul begins by calling the Corinthians on their arrogance.  They are acting as if they "know-it-all".  They don't need a teacher; they don't need instruction.  Paul sarcastically says, "We are fools for Christ, but you are wise for Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, but we are dishonored.!"   The Corinthians have let some success in spiritual matters go to their heads, and it has affected their vision with regard to their behavior toward one another as well.

(This reminds me a little of the arrogance of the Enron executives right before its fall.  They were so drunk with their financial success they lost their moral compass.)

The Corinthians are wayward not only in sexual matters, but also in matters of how they treat one another.  They accuse each other and bring lawsuits against each other.  They are contentious.  They treat each other (and themselves) with disrespect.

Yes, you're free, Paul tells them, but free for what?  That's the question.

In Corinthians, Paul's ethics is defined by this axiom:  "Don't you know that your body is  temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?  Do't you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don't belong to yourselves?"

Honor your body.  Respect your body as given by God and a dwelling for the Holy Spirit.  And respect and honor your neighbor's body too.

It's not just your spirit that is important.  It is your beautiful, breathing body, created by God.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Day 53: Wisdom and Foolishness, an Inside Look at a Real Congregation

I like the first letter to the Corinthians.  I think one of the reasons that I like it is that it's very clear, in this letter, that Paul knows these people, that Paul knows this congregation, and that he is responding to very specific issues that have arisen in the community.  Even though it's helpful to read background notes about the people in Corinth, you can figure out some of what is going on without doing any background reading, because you can just tell from the kinds of things Paul is talking about.  It's like reading other people's mail, something of course no one should do, but something perhaps we are tempted to do on occasion, just out of curiosity.

So, what's going on in Corinth?

People are fighting, for one thing.  People are playing  favorites, jockeying for position, saying "I'm a better Christian than you are because such-and-such baptized me."  There are factions based on leadership, and who is the best public speaker (possibly Apollos) or who is the best looking or who is the most "spiritual."

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

As the letter to the Corinthians goes on, we'll find out that the arguing and the factions and the one-upmanship is just the tip of the iceberg.  There many other things going on in Corinth.  It makes you wonder how Paul can keep his temper, because, one of the things people are questioning is whether Paul is such a great apostle after all.  They've had some flashier preachers come in since Paul left, and they've been wowing the crowds and telling them some different things....

All right, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Just for now, we're dealing with the church conflicts, and the arguing.

And Paul uses the occasion to do some great preaching about foolishness and wisdom, about how sometimes the things that look the most foolish are really wise (like the death of Jesus on the cross) and how sometimes the things that look wise to us are not worth the paper they are printed on.

Now while I am attracted to Paul's paradox about wisdom and foolishness, I need to say that I don't think Paul is advocating a sort of "know-nothing-ism."  I don't think that foolishness is the same as ignorance, or that he is advocating being stupid.  I think the wisdom that he is speaking of is a sort of "wisdom of the world", the sort of "if you are rich it must be because you are the smartest person in the world", or "the people who speak fluently are the ones we ought to trust" -- that sort of wisdom that looks at the surface of things and makes judgments.   If it is that sort of wisdom we are looking for, it certain is foolishness to follow Jesus, the one who was crucified, and everyone knows it.  We also believe that he was raised, but NOT everyone knows that.

In particular, Paul is interested in reminding them that when he came among them, all he preached and all he wanted them to know was "Christ crucified."  That was it.  No fancy words.  No secrets of the ages.  Just "Christ crucified", (not even Christ resurrected!) equally confounding to Jews and Gentiles, but powerful and wise to those who heard.

It makes me wonder, in church conflicts today, what would be the results if we began and ended with "Christ crucified."  If we decided to know nothing with each other but this:  "Christ and him crucified",  what would that mean?  If we looked at each other and saw people for whom Christ died, people in whom (by grace) Christ lives, what would that mean?

Would it make any difference?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Day 52: The Weak and the Strong, Travel Plans, Greetings

The letter to the Romans ends with Paul weighing in on what seems to be a local controversy.  There are some among the Christians in Rome who are careful about what they eat, who practice abstinence of certain foods, and feel that this is part of how they are faithful.  There are others who feel that freedom in Christ means that they can eat anything they want to.  Paul seems to agree, in theory anyway, with those who feel that they can eat anything.  But "in theory" is a loaded phrase.  Paul tells the Christian community in Rome that just because they are free to eat anything, doesn't mean it's a good idea, especially if it's going to be harmful to the faith of their brothers and sisters.

So, what kind of food is Paul talking about?  Is he talking about people who keep kosher?  Is he talking about people who eat food which has been sacrificed to idols?  Or are there different dietary restrictions?  I don't know.

But what is interesting to note is that Paul's instructions are based on doing what is good, not for you, but for someone else.  It reminds me of someone who said that the question that always comes up at election tie, "Are you better off?" should really be this one, "Is your neighbor better off?"  That is Christian ethics.

Paul winds down his letter by talking specifically about his plans to visit the church in Rome, after he delivers the offering he is collecting to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  He is passionate about this offering, and what it represents.  It represents unity between Christians who are far away from one another.  It represents a unity of mission, even where there has been disagreement about practice.  Paul wants the Gentile Christians to be generous.

And then he sends greetings.  He sends greetings to specific people he knows, to those he has heard about and hopes to meet.  It might seem to be the least interesting part of the letter, except that there are probably fascinating stories (mostly that we don't know) behind every one of these names.  For example, there is Junia the apostle.  Junia is a woman's name.  Apparently there were some women leaders in the early church.  I would like to know more about Junia.

Paul closes his leader with a great and wonderful phrase about a secret -- the secret that has now been revealed.  I love the idea that the gospel is a secret.  It's been there, all along.  It's not that it's a new thing  It was just that it was a secret before, and now it has been spoken.  The grace of God has been spoken in the person of Jesus.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Day 51: Israel's Salvation, A Transformed Life, Living with Rulers

These three chapters appear to have nothing in common (and perhaps they don't, except that they are all a part of the letter to the Romans).  Chapter 11 completes Paul's thoughts about the salvation of the Jews, the promise of Jesus, and what he thinks will happen "in the end."  Paul exhorts the Gentile Christians not to think of themselves too highly; after all, if they could be grafted into the vine, they could most certainly could be cut off, and the original branches grafted back on!  He also muses that perhaps God has a purpose in the supposed hardness of heart of some of his Jewish brothers and sisters.  It is exactly so that God could show mercy to the Gentiles -- and then -- in the end -- all of Israel will also be saved.  At least, that is Paul's vision and his hope.

In chapter 12, Paul casts a vision of a transformed life and a transformed community.  He begins by speaking about the gifts people will share in this transformed community.  And then he goes on to share a laundry list of Christian excellence:  genuine love, hospitality to strangers, service to others.  Giving to  the needs of the saints.  Associating with the lowly.  This is what transformed lives look like.  And though it is easy for us to read the list and consider these as individual virtues (that is the way we think of most things in our lives), these are virtues practiced and honed in community.  This is the "rock tumbler" of Christian community, where we bump up against one another, and begin to shine.

And then, we come to the difficult chapter 13.  Why difficult, you might ask?  After all, Paul is simply asking us to consider civil authority as given by God, to obey the law, to believe that there is an order to the creative world.  God has put governments in place for a good purpose, to prevent chaos, and to make sure communities live (as much as possible) in peace.  It seems fair enough.  Even now, we encourage citizens to obey the law.

Except that there are extenuating circumstances.  Except that in Nazi Germany, church-goers used this particular chapter of Romans as an excuse for not standing up to Hitler.  So we need to read Romans 13 very carefully, respect the message and its limits.

Remember that Paul did not live in a democracy, where everyone had the same voice and responsibility.  Even so, remember as well that if rulers are given by God, they are accountable to God as well.  If they are not acting justly, we have the means, and the responsibility to hold them accountable, while at the same time respecting laws.

So, these chapters are each very different, with a different slant.  The glue that holds 11 and 13 together, though, is the vision of chapter 12:  "let love be genuine. hate what is evil. hold fast to what is good."  And the whole thing is held together with the glue of God's mercy in Christ.

In a sense, each chapter has something to say about our calling, our irrevocable calling, which is completely based on the grace and mercy of God to us.

Which is these chapters hit home the most for you?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Day 50: Israel, the Church, God's People

Paul is Jewish.  Paul is a disciple of Jesus.  Paul loves Judaism.  Paul loves Jesus.  In chapters 9, 10 and 11, Paul tries to speak about all of these things in away that is true to God's promises through Jesus, but also true to God's faithfulness to Israel as the chosen people.

One of Paul's statements is that God chooses the ones he chooses, and hardens the hearts of others, and who knows why.  An imaginary opponent poses the question, "How can God blame someone for a hard heart, if he hardens the heart?"  Good question.

Paul has nothing but praise for his Jewish brothers and sisters' zeal and how religious they are.  He respects them, and doesn't really have any idea why most of his brothers and sisters have not joined him in the community of Jesus.

But, Paul asserts:  God chooses.  God chose Abraham, and Jacob, and Joseph.  And God is choosing now, and is choosing Gentiles to also be a part of his chosen people.  God is in charge, and somehow this is happening.    That is the greatest good news of all.  God chooses.  God loves his people, both the ones he is choosing now and the ones he chose long ago.

And I believe, at the end of Romans 10, when Paul writes, "How can they hear without a preacher?  How can they preach unless they are sent?" he is particularly speaking to Gentile Christians, to make sure they are speaking and sharing words and grace and faith that they have been given.   Make sure you are good witnesses to the grace of love of Jesus, he is telling them.

He has an interesting thought:  Maybe, if we make a really good community, and are really good witnesses of what life in Christ is like, we will make them jealous.

Paul's thoughts are to be continued, in chapter 11....

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Day 49: Bondage to Sin/Freedom in Christ

Perhaps chapter 7 of Romans confuses you somewhat.  I find the sentence structures convoluted, and it seems like (at times, anyway) that Paul is really struggling to say what he wants to say.  Then, for a moment, it becomes clear.  Then, it's a struggle again.

Since Paul is talking about the relationship between sin and the law, between our desire for God and our temptations to do evil, it's perhaps understandable that his language sounds like a struggle.  Because there's a struggle going on inside us:  the struggle to do good, and the knowledge that we have done evil, and our guilt before God.

Many people have assumed that what Paul is writing is a sort of confessional, that he is saying, "this is what it was like for me before I followed Jesus."  But actually, he is not writing about himself, but his "I" is meant to be EveryMan.  He is not telling his story; he is telling all our stories.  We are in bondage to sin, struggling to do the right thing but failing at every turn and in every way imaginable.  We are spiraling out of control.  What are we going to do?

The good news is:  "what are we going to do?" is not even the right question.  There is nothing for US to do.  The question is not "what are we going to do?" but "what is God going to do?"  And the answer is,

Thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through out Lord Jesus Christ.

Chapter 8 follows as one of the most soaring chapters in all of scripture.  The chapter begins:  Now there is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  God has ended the struggle.  God does not condemn us.

By grace God's spirit dwells in us, and helps us to turn to God again and again.  By grace God's spirit dwells in us, and helps us through our suffering, helps us in our weakness, and proclaims to us, holds on to us, so that we know that God's love will never let go of us, no matter what happens to us.   Even death can't separate us from God's love.

This is such a long way from the struggle just one chapter ago, in chapter 7, but it is the movement of our lives, every day, and every time we confess our sin.  We move from our awareness of our bondage to experiencing the gift of freedom again.  That is the power of God in Christ.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Day 48: Abraham, Adam, Jesus -- Peace with God

In the next three chapters are three different models for us.  In Chapter 4 we meet Abraham, the father of Israel, the father of the circumcised, the one who originally heard God, and set out on a journey to a place he had never been before.  Paul makes the argument that Abraham is the father not just of Israel, not just of the circumcised, but of all who trust God's faithfulness.   Didn't God's call to Abraham (and Abraham's answer) precede his circumcision? Paul asks.  (Yes).  Well, then, it is not circumcision that makes the difference but it is faith in God.  It is trust in Christ's faithfulness, not whether we meet a particular legal requirement, that makes the difference.

Before we meet the next model (Adam), there is that wonderful portion of Romans 5 that shows us the consequences of trusting in Christ's faithfulness:  peace with God.  This peace transcends our circumstances, builds character, and gives meaning to our suffering, because God's love has overflowed into our hearts.

So, what about Adam?  Paul also lists Adam as a model -- a model not of obedience but of disobedience, not of trust but of distrust.  Adam and Eve were in the garden, with free gifts all around them, and instead of seeing the abundance of gifts, they focused on the one thing denied them.    Paul says -- we are like Adam -- and yet, God values us, loves us, and Jesus died for us.

Then, finally, is Jesus, the third model.  Unlike Adam, Jesus trusts God.  Jesus is faithful to God -- and to us.  Somehow because of this faithfulness, the cycle of sin is broken, and we are set free.  We don't have to obey God, out of fear or obligation.  But we get to hear God's voice, experience God's love and caring, and help our neighbor in ways that really help.

Paul is talking about, trying to explain big things, big concept:  Freedom and captivity, sin and faith and righteousness.  What do those words mean to you?  What does it mean to be free?  or, not free?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Day 47: Digging into Romans: All Have Sinned

Have you eaten a good breakfast?  are you sitting down and ready to think deeply?  We are out of the stories of Jesus and the Apostles now and into the deep theology of the letters of Paul.  Romans is the longest, and the deepest, and the most systematic of these letters.  I wish we had more than a few days to read the whole thing.

Most of Romans, actually doesn't read much like a letter.  It sounds more like a treatise.  Paul is on his way to Rome, but on the way he is collecting an important offering from his Gentile churches to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, an important symbol of unity between the two bodies of believers.  In the meantime, he's writing to Rome to share his faith with Gentile believers, at least in part to help them to live with, and be good witnesses to, their Jewish brothers and sisters.  As it is, there is much misunderstanding between them.

Paul is writing this letter to a church he has never met (that is not the case with most of the letters).  Perhaps this is one of the reasons it sounds less personal than many of the others you will read.  After framing his greetings in the common format of letter of the day, he begins his argument for the gospel -- salvation for everyone, "the Jew first and also to the Greek."  (Paul will repeat this phrase many times.) His main point in these first three chapters is to prove that all of us, Jewish or Gentile, are sinners, that we have no excuse, that we have no defense before God.  He debates with imaginary sparring partners, refuting their arguments at every turn in order to make it to his main point and eventually to the height and the depth and the width of the love and grace of God.  On the way, he speaks of sins, which are the result of idolatry -- of worshipping creation rather than Creator, of looking into the mirror at ourselves  (with out selfishness, greed and hard-heartedness) and imagining God from what we see there.

The well-known verse in chapter three, "since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is Christ Jesus," is a sort of climax to the whole first section.  If you read it aloud (which I actually recommend), imagine it being read in a louder and louder voice, until finally, the words "Justified by his grace as a gift..." make the peak of the mountain, from which we come down now.

Much as I know well this letter, it's going to be a learning curve for me in the next few days to think of compelling ways to write about what I find here, what my thoughts are, and what stories might emerge.

What is your experience of the book of Romans?  Do you know it well?  What are your stumbling blocks?  What do you appreciate here?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Day 46: Paul comes to Rome, the story Continues....

So, in this final installment in the book of The Acts of the Apostles, Paul testifies convincingly to King Agrippa.  In fact, in some translations, he says he is "almost persuaded" to become a follow of The Way.  But, not quite.  Paul shares his testimony, his former life as a Pharisee, how he came to believe in Jesus, and what he is doing now.  King Agrippa is almost persuaded.  Others shout out that Paul has gone crazy (from too much learning, they say...).  Everyone agrees, though, that there is no reason for Paul to be arrested.  He could be released.

If only he hadn't appealed to Rome.

So, Paul sets out, as a prisoner, for Rome.  It's late to make the sea journey, and Paul (who comes off just a little as a know-it-all) warns them that they will run into trouble.  Which they do.  Paul becomes a leader, encouraging and supporting the crew and the other prisoners, blessing food for a meal (which sounds a lot like a communion mean, even though most of the people on board are not believer), and leading the people as they unload the grain in an effort to avoid shipwrecked.

Just as Paul prophesied, they are shipwrecked anyway, but although they lose their ship, they do not lose any lives.  The crew were considering killing all of the prisoners, so that they wouldn't escape, but the centurion prevented this.  On shore, a poisonous snake bites Paul, but he is unfazed by this.  Paul also is a healer on the island (which they discover is Malta).

Finally, Paul and his companions make it to Rome.  He gets a chance to make his case in the synagogue in Rome, where Paul again meets with a mixed reception.  Some believe in Paul's message about Jesus, but others are skeptical and converse among themselves.  Paul is going to continue to preach the message about Jesus among the Gentiles.

The final verse of Acts does not seem so much like an ending.  We don't know what happens to Paul.  He doesn't come to trial while he is there.  We only know that at the end of the book of Acts, Paul is still awaiting trial, but preaching freely and doing his ministry in this place.

There is no ending.

Not until the final verse of the book of Revelation, when the new heaven and the new earth is revealed.

In the meantime, there are still Acts being written, or being lived, your Acts and mine, or rather, the Acts of Jesus in us.

As for Paul,  what does happen to him?  There are some people who believe that he journeyed further, that he preached and testified in Spain.  Most scholars believe that he was, finally, martyred in Rome.

Maybe it's better not to know for sure.  Because Acts 29 is being written in every disciple that journeys with Jesus, and every community that shares his name.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Day 45: Paul Appeals to Caesar

We are almost to the end of Acts.  It is all Paul's story now, and who knows how it will end?  He has come to Jerusalem to give offerings for the poor (against the advice of friends, remember), and he has been set up, accused and arrested.  Now, several different rulers have heard his story, and are deciding what is next for him.

Paul portrays himself in front of Felix as an observant Jew whose only offense is believing in what he calls "The Way."  Felix leaves Paul in prison until a new governor, Festus, is appointed, and then Paul presents his case to Festus.  Upon not receiving a sympathetic hearing, he appeals to Caesar.

Festus agrees.

King Agrippa and his with Bernice arrive with much fanfare.  There is some interesting conversation between Agrippa and Festus.  They agree that they don't really know what is going on.  When Paul's accusers stand before them, they don't present the case they expect.  Instead, they are arguing about a man named "Jesus."  What is going on?  They are puzzled.

King Agrippa wants to hear Paul for himself.  Festus promises that he will, tomorrow.

There seems to be so little overtly "spiritual" in these passages.  It is all about the courts and the accusations and the political machinations, and whether justice will be done or not.  But God is present here too, even though we don't know the end, or what will happen to Paul.

So, what is here that intrigues you?  Is it the name of the followers of Jesus "the Way"?  Is it the way that the government officials don't have any understanding of the issues of spiritual realities?  "Why do they care about this dead guy, Jesus?" they ask.   Or perhaps it's the way Paul takes every opportunity, whether in season or out of season, to speak about his faith, and give his testimony.  Paul is humble, but he is bold.  He appeals to Caesar for his life, but accepts his fate if fault is found in him.

"Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."

So, what will happen next?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Day 44: Paul's Testimony, and what happens next..

To be honest with you, I would have liked it much better if Paul had given his powerful testimony of conversion on the road to Damascas, and the result was that everybody (or most everybody) (or, a large group of people, anyway) was convinced and convicted by his story, and changed their hearts.  Or, at least, decided not to kill him.

But that's not what happened.  The plot thickens.  Paul tells everyone about what a good Jew he was, and is, and how he was on the way to persecute Christians, and the blinding light, and the voice, and how the Jewish believer Ananais came to him and restored his sight. 

It's such a powerful testimony that the voices rise up, "He deserves to die!"  Which is what they already thought.

I always think that our stories are so powerful, more powerful than statistics, statistics don't convince people, but stories do.  And that is true -- sometimes.  Other times, we have our minds so made up already that the most moving story will not move us.

So.....there are people who have Paul so much that they have made a vow that they will not eat or drink until they kill him.  They are going to ambush those who are holding him and kill him.

Paul has a couple of aces up his sleeve, however.  One is his Roman citizenship.  He has certain rights, and he is going to use them. 

He also cleverly refers to his belief in the resurrection of the dead to stir up controversy between the Saducees and the Pharisees.  Two groups who were formerly united against him are not (at least temporarily) divided and arguing with each other.  There's a pragmatic streak to Paul. 

This is an ongoing story, and we are not to the end of it yet.  What happens next?  Stay tuned for tomorrow's installment....

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 43: Paul's Journeys, until Jerusalem....

This is where it's a good idea to start looking at a map, to keep track of the towns Paul travels through, the seas he sails through, as well as the people he meets.  At the beginning of chapter 19, Paul is traveling through Ephesus and meets some believers who have not yet received the Holy Spirit.  Not only that, they haven't even heard of the existence of the Holy Spirit.  He prays for them, and immediately they begin to speak in languages and prophecy.

Coincidentailly, there are "about" twelve of them. hmmmmm.

In the meantime, things are not going so smoothly in the synagogues.  There are people who are convinced about Paul's message, but many more who are not. One small, odd story concerns some exorcists who do not appear to believe in Jesus but who like to cast out evil spirits in his name.  At one point, the spirits ask the exorcists, "Jesus I know, and Paul I am familiar with, but who are you?"

Personally, the very small detail about people being healed by touching even small pieces of cloth that have been touched by Paul is the strangest to me.  This reminds me of the stories of medieval relics that have healing power.  What do you think about this?  In the midst of all of this trouble, the power of healing through Paul only gets stronger.

Paul decides to return to Jerusalem, which a lot of people think is a big mistake.  Many people try to talk him out of it.

At the same time, Paul is getting into trouble not just with Jews but with Gentiles who feel that he has "dissed" their goddess, Artemis.  He is a friend of no one's status quo.  His truth disturbs everyone, in some way or another.  His words and presence cause riots.

Aside:  during a theological conversation that lasts all night, a young man named Eutychus falls asleep, and falls out the window.  He is pronounced dead, but Paul raises him from death.  (possibly where the saying "bored to death" is from?)  (Just asking.)

Despite many many protests, Paul returns to Jerusalem.  Many of his friends plead with him, pray for him, beg him, but he leaves.  He arrives in Jerusalem to find it just as his friends have feared.  James tries to protect him, but Paul is the center of controversy and gossip in Jerusalem, because of what people have heard about the Gentiles, and what they claim that Paul is preaching.  Paul purifies himself to prove that he's still a good Jew, and James and other Jerusalem leaders repeat what they told the Gentile churches:  all they nee to do is abstain from eating blood, eating food sacrificed to idols, and from sexual immorality.

It does no good.  Paul is set up and arrested.  He appeals as a citizen of the Empire for the right to speak.

And speak he does.

(to be continued)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Day 42: Disturbing the Peace, Defending the Gospel

Paul journeys and preaches in some cities with names that might be familiar to us:  Thessolonica, Corinth, Berea, Athens.  Some of the cities are familiar because we'll be reading Paul's letters to congregations in those cities soon.

In the meantime, Paul's preaching incites controversy, as well as curiosity, and conversion, where-ever he goes.  The Jewish people who are concerned about the new religion come out and accuse Paul and his friends of "disturbing the peace."  Another translation reads something like this, "The people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also...."

It makes me wonder whether we can be concerned about turning the world upside down lately.  Sometimes the responsibility of the church is to keep the peace, but other times, I wonder if it's not more appropriate to disturb the peace, to shake things up, especially when justice is not being done, when the peace needs to be shaken.

Paul preaches in Athens, among people who love to hear "the latest thing," and gathers a number of curiosity-seekers willing to listen to him.  It's interesting that his sermon is quite different than the ones we have heard him preach before.  Paul quotes not scripture, instead reaching for allusions from popular philosophy of the day.  There are people who scoff because of his references to Jesus' resurrection, and it's hard to tell how many converts he gained, but he portrayed the good news in a new language in Athens.  It is still the job of missionaries to speak good news in new languages today.

In Corinth, Paul meets a couple who lead a house church:  Priscilla and Aquila.  He stays in Corinth for 18 months, longer than he has stayed anywhere else.  (We'll learn more interesting facts about Corinth a little later.)  In Corinth, Priscilla and Aquilla train another effective missionary, Apollos, who seems to be charismatic and successful in defending the faith.  For some reason, when I hear the word "Apollos", I think of someone really impressive, probably good-looking, someone combines charm, intelligence and eloquence.  For some reason, I'm always a little suspicious of people like that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Day 41: Controversies, Arguments, Imprisonment: The Grace of God

So Paul and his companions have been finding some success preaching the gospel of Jesus among the Gentiles, when there appears a competing group who also preach Jesus -- plus circumcision.  This development leads to the first church convention, where the topic at hand is:  What should we do with all these non-Jewish people who want to be Christian?  Some people thought they ought to be circumcised; others (including Paul) did not.

Success has its price.

As well, note that even at this early date, there were disagreements among believers.  In this case, after heated discussions, the church came to an agreement about what they would ask from the Gentile believers:  not circumcision, but abstaining from eating blood, and food sacrificed to idols, and sexual immorality.

Having dodged this bullet, however, Paul and Barnabas somehow couldn't fix a rift that developed between the two of them.  We really don't know much about the rift, except that it had to do with John Mark.  Barnabas wanted to take him along with them; Paul did not.  On the basis of something as simple as this, Paul and Barnabas part ways.  Paul teams up with Silas, and eventually Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek father (interesting that he has Timothy circumcised because of the company with whom he expects to be traveling.)

It's sort of sad that the church could come to an agreement with respect to the first controversial issue they faced, but that Paul and Barnabas couldn't come to an agreement with regard to John Mark.  But that's the way it is in churches sometimes, isn't it?  It is the (seemingly) little things, the rifts between individuals, that catch us up, oftentimes more than the big and controversial theological issues of the day.  it is the arguments about which songs we sing and who distrusts who that end up generating the heat, even now.

That being said, Luke is still pretty clear that it is the Holy Spirit that directs or impedes their progress.  The Holy Spirit leads them to Macedonia, where Lydia hears the message of Jesus and believes.  Later on, though, Paul casts an evil spirit out of a young woman.  This good deed is rewarded with time in prison for Paul and Silas.  (it seems that the evil spirit was a source of revenue for the owners of the young woman.)

As has happened before, a way for the apostle to escape from jail presents itself:  an earthquake!  but this time, instead of escaping, Paul and his friends stay put, and in this way confess their faith in the one who has set them free.

There is more than one kind of captivity
And more than one way to be free.

The Acts of the Apostles..... are to be continued.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Day 40: The Message Expands outward, with opposition

There's a shift coming here -- in chapter 12, it is the preaching and message of Peter which still take precedence, but shortly the apostle Paul and his exploits will take center stage.  Though right away we can tell that the church is growing, and that the opposition is growing too.

James, John's brother is martyred, Peter is put in prison, and the church is under duress.  It is not explicitly stated, but the implication is that Peter is about to be martyred.  But an angel leads him through locked prison doors, until he is comes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark.  (this is where the believers often met.)  He knocks on the door, and a little servant girl named Rhoda answers the door.  She is so excited to see him that she forgets to let him in!

Also, just inside, many disciples are sitting in a circle and praying for Peter.  Imagine their surprise when the answer to their prayers is suddenly standing among them.

Perhaps it felt as if Jesus had been resurrected again.

Answers to prayer are not always (or even usually) so dramatic or immediate.  But this gives you an idea of  how the Spirit directed the early believers.

So the Spirit sends them out from Antioch, even farther out.  Paul, Barnabas and John Mark head down to Seleucia, to Cyprus,  and to Paphos and Perga, preaching in the synagogues and then going out to tell the Gentiles as well.

Paul preaches a sermon telling the basic story about Jesus.  He meets with success at first, but later on, some of the other Jewish leader come in with questions, and their success is diminished.  This is the pattern wherever he goes, whenever Paul goes out into the world; he always goes to the synagogue first, and then later on, they go out to the Gentiles.

Even when Paul meets with success, there are complications.  Paul heals a man in Lystra, and then has to deal with the problem that the people there think they are gods, like Zeus and Hermes.  They are too popular for their own good.  Even so, it appears that the crowds of believers are easily swayed, and later on Paul is stoned and left for dead.

Crowds are fickle.  It is ever so.

And even success bring complications, for the early church, and for us.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Day 39: The Circle Widens with Cornelius and his family

There's a turning point in this chapter, and it begins with two men praying and seeing angels and having visions.  First, there is Cornelius, a pious Gentile, who is praying at around three in the afternoon (one of the hours of prayer, by the way), when he sees an angel who tells him to go and summon a man named Simon (who he has never met.)  This Simon will tell him Something.

In the meantime, Peter is also praying.  It is noon (another hour of prayer) and he sees a vision while he is on the roof.  In the vision, he sees a sheet full of animals that are considered unclean by Jewish law.  The voice in the vision says to Peter, "Get up!  Kill and eat!"  Peter refuses, but the voice persists.  "Never consider unclean what God has made pure."

Peter does receive a visitor, who invites him to Cornelius' home.  He finds a surprising welcome when he gets there.  There are many people waiting for him, waiting for the word that he will give him.  Peter begins by noting that Jewish law forbids him to even be in the house with Cornelius.  But God has commanded him.

So he preaches the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and his extended family and servants.  The result?  They are all "filled with the Holy Spirit" (whatever that means); they begin to speak in tongues.  Because of what Peter witnesses, he decides that these Gentiles should be baptized and become a part of the body of believers.

No longer is the church simply a small sub-set of Judaism.  It is still small, but it is a wider circle.

The other believers have questions for Peter when he gets back to Jerusalem.  They aren't happy that he broke Jewish law, and they don't understand why he baptized Cornelius.  But he explains his encounter and the power of God he witnessed there, and the other apostles change their minds.  Perhaps even Gentiles can repent, they decide.

I know that this story is literally about the divide between Jews and Gentiles, but I can't help but wonder what unclean things God might be declaring pure even now, and in whose lives we witness the power of God, if we are given eyes to see it.

That is the criteria for Peter:  I saw the power of God in the life of Cornelius.  I saw the Holy Spirit.

What about you?  Where do you see the power of God?  Are there any  surprising places?

There's a short aside after this story about the church in Antioch, and how Antioch is where the people who believed in Jesus were first called "Christians."  As well, I can't help but notice how obviously the Spirit directed the travels, words and actions of the apostles (according to Luke.)  The Spirit tells them that there will be a famine.  The Spirit tells them to go to this city, or to send this person.

I wonder what it would be like for us to listen carefully enough to know that our actions were spirit-directed.  And what do you suspect we would be called to do?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 38: The Adventures of Philip, the Conversion of Saul

At the end of the last chapter, we were briefly introduced to someone who will eventually play a major part in both the book of Acts and in the growing church (we will read many letters by him.)  A young Pharisee named Saul is zealous for his faith, holds the coats of those who are stoning Stephen.

And he has other plans for the followers of Jesus....

But, we move on for a moment, to hear about some exploits of another of the Deacons (remember those seven deacons?)  Today there are two stories which feature Philip (not the apostle, but the deacon, newly commissioned).  First there is a story about a magician names Simon, who follows the disciples around and is captivated by the powerful acts they can do.  He was the main event before Philip and Peter arrive with the power of the Spirit, given through the laying on of hands.  Eventually he asks whether he can pay money to get some of that power, because, you know, it might come in reallllly handy.

Part of me feels sorry for Simon.  He does, in some ways, seem genuinely curious about what is going on.  But, he just doesn't get it.  I also can't help wondering if this story is here to both compare and contrast the power of magic and the power of the Holy Spirit.  It seems, some people do mistake the two....

The second story involve Philip not healing and preaching, but in a one to one conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch.  There are many strange elements to this story, not the least of them the character of the Ethiopian eunuch, sitting and reading scripture (in your mind, picture him reading aloud, but to himself) when Philip happens by.  He is reading Isaiah 53, about the suffering servant, and asks the question, "Who is this suffering servant?"  Philip baptizes him on the spot, and sends him on his way.  (The Ethiopian church, by the way, traces its inception to this Bible story…).

Remember Saul?

Now, we are back to his story.  He's got some dastardly plan for Christians in Damascus, when God intercepts him, blinds him, and turns his life in another direction.  I always feel that Ananais, the man sent to pray for Saul's sight to be restored, doesn't get enough credit.  We're all about the Bible heroes (like Saul, like Peter), but Ananias is no less important.  It's just that nobody wrote down the stories of all the things that Ananais did.  If he hadn't put aside his questions and obeyed God, the whole story of the church might have turned out differently.

After Paul becomes a disciple, you might be interested to know that he is not immediately embraced by the disciples in Jerusalem, who are understandably suspicious.  It takes some time before they believe that this is not an elaborate plot.

Again, there are conflicts with the synagogue leaders, who try to kill Saul/Paul.

And Chapter 9 shifts the focus again by reporting the story of Peter's healings, and how he raised a pious woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas) from the dead.

When I read of the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts, I inevitably begin to meditate on the gift of healing.  On rare occasions, I do hear a story of someone being healed; I do believe it can happen.  But....

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Day 37: Servants and Martyrs

In this ideal church, now a controversy arises (so, congregational perfection has always been elusive).  There is suspicious between two groups of believers -- Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians.  (Not to put too fine a point on it, they were not called "Christians" yet.  I believe they were called the followers of "the way.")

It seems that the Greek-speakers thought that their widows were not treated fairly in the distribution of goods.  So the church appointed seven men to be "Deacons", or servants, to make sure that everyone was treated fairly.

One of the men was Stephen.  (Another was Philip, but we will learn more about him, later.)

Seven could be just the literal number of men chosen to be deacons, but it's worth noting that seven is also a meaningful number -- often times the number seven signifies completeness.  So -- these seven men are deacons, which means they are servants.  But they are also forces to be reckoned with, as we will see, on at least two occasions.

Stephen rubbed people the wrong way.  He was bold about Jesus, and a lot of people were upset by the things he said.  If you really walking in the moccasins of the religious leaders, you might at least sympathize, as he was very critical of them.

So Stephen was asked to defend himself (you might have noticed that this happens rather regularly.)  He gives a summary of salvation history, starting with Abraham and ending with Jesus.  And he calls them stubborn and unrepentant, totally disobeying the Holy Spirit.

This makes the religious leaders even angrier.  So they stone him.

And, Stephens sees the heavens open up, and he sees the angels and the Son of man, and he says to those who are stoning him, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing?"

Who does this sound like to you?

The Acts of the apostles.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Day 36: "We Are Witnesses Of These Things"

These are words we here over and over again in these three chapters of Acts.  Peter and John heal a lame man as they approaching the Beautiful Gate at the 3:00 prayer time.  (In Jewish tradition, there are seven times a day for prayer.  If you know this, you will find several references of people turning to prayer "at the appointed time.")

So, the man who is healed does not just walk away, he leaps away, and he praises God.  Suddenly, the disciples are doing Acts of healing just as mighty and impressive as Jesus did.  The Holy Spirit has empowered the to be witnesses, which does not only involve speaking, but also acts of healing and compassion.*

But witnessing does involve speaking as well.  In fact, the disciples seem to spend as much time defending themselves as they do healing and preaching.  They are brought up against the council more than once in these beginning chapters of Acts, and they are thrown into prison, only to let out by the power of the Holy Spirit.

"You know those uneducated fishermen you threw in prison?  They're preaching in the temple again?"

For a little while, at least, the faith community seems to lead an ideal life.  They are devoted to Jesus, and to one another.  They have no secrets (it seems) and they share everything -- not because they have to, but freely.  They sell property and lay the proceeds at the apostles' feet, to be used for the good of the whole community.  Wow.

Until Ananais and Sapphira.  It doesn't take long for someone to come along who gets the idea that they will sell a piece of property, give some of the proceeds to the apostles, tell the apostles that they have given everything, and secretly keep some of the money for themselves.  The motivation for this behavior is unclear.  The apostles seem more concerned that the couple has lied than that they held money back.  The ideal seems to be that no one has any personal property any more, but the truth is, the apostles do not require anyone to give.  As Peter says, "It was yours to keep or to give away.  Why did you lie?"  And then Ananais is struck dead (and later, his wife).

The death penalty for duplicity.  This is sobering.  No second chances for Ananais and Sapphira.  This is one of those stories that I kind of wish was a metaphor.  Because I can understand it as an object lesson, but not as a real event.  In real life, I'd like a little more room for repentance and forgiveness, another chance to get it right.

Finally, there is the figure of Gamaliel the Pharisee.  He warns the other religious leaders to watch out for the followers of Jesus, take a "wait and see attitude."  After all, there have been supposed messiahs before. After they died, their followers scattered, and that was that.  See what happens with this man Jesus and his followers, Gamaliel says.  "If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin.  But if it originates with God, you will not be able to stop them."

Gamaliel was wise in many ways.  We could learn from him even now.

*P.S. I do not know the significance of the age of the man who was healed.  Why was it important that he was over 40?  Anyone?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day 35: Ascent and Descent -- Beginning of the Acts of the Apostles

Luke and Theophilus are back for the second volume of writing, often called, simply, "Acts."  Have you ever thought about that?  But the full title is really, "The Acts of the Apostles," and this second volume written by Luke is about many of the miracles, healings, and other things the disciples did in the name of Jesus and in the power of Jesus.

But it begins with Jesus eating with his disciples, teaching his disciples, and, after 40 days, promising them that he would send them the Holy Spirit, so that they could say the things he wanted them to say and do the acts he wanted them to do.

During that ten-day waiting period, one of the tasks that the disciples face is choosing a replacement for Judas (the gory details of his demise are also included).  They have two candidates and pray and cast lots to discover the right choice.  What do you think of this means of electing an apostle?

Then, In Acts chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes down and fills the disciples.  And I'll be honest, as a pastor, I am extremely familiar with this story.  I read it and hear it every year.  But it never fails to strike me as strange, very strange, exceedingly strange.  Sort of in the way the story of Lazarus is exceedingly strange.  There are the tongues of flame and the many languages and the accusations of drunkenness.

The other thing is, no matter how many times I read this story, I never fail to find something new here.  One year it was the realization that the disciples are gathered on the day of Pentecost, which is a Jewish harvest festival, and that on that day there was a harvest of souls (3,000 people) who heard the message of the gospel and became the first congregation.  Another year I heard the story of the disciples speaking many languages and realized that the emphasis was not on the disciples speech but on what the people heard "we hear the in our own native languages."  Probably everyone there would be able to understand the message if the disciples had spoken the language of the Roman empire, which everyone had to learn.  But no, all of the people heard in their own native languages.  It is as if Jesus' incarnation has expanded even farther, into every culture and nation.

So Peter preaches his word of judgment and grace, and the people repent.

The close of Acts chapter 2 sounds like an ideal community:  sharing food, praying together, sharing all things in common.  In a way, it's a incredible and unbelievable as the tongues of fire and the mighty wind.  Perhaps more unbelievable.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Day 34: The Resurrection.... and The Life

Chapter 19 should have been the last chapter, but it wasn't.  Death should be the end of the story for Jesus, but it isn't.  Joseph of Arimathea provides the tomb for Jesus' body.  And the stone is rolled in front of the tomb, and that should be the end of it.

But it isn't.  For Mary Magdalene, first to the tomb, and first to find it empty.  For Peter and the Beloved Disciple (whoever it may be),  For the other disciples, afraid and behind locked doors.  For Thomas (a week later).  For Mary, it's the sound of her name that convinces her that Jesus is not the gardener, but her friend and her Lord.  For the disciples, it is the sight of his nail-scarred hands and his words, "Peace be with you."  For Thomas, it is Jesus' invitation to touch him and find out for himself.

What is it for you?

At the end of Chapter 20 John hopes we who have not seen have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that we too have life, and that this chapter is not the last chapter for us, either.

But then, curiously, there is this other chapter, chapter 21.  Chapter 20 seems like it ought to be the end, especially with that wonderful summary of the purpose of the Gospel at the end.  But then there is chapter 21, which begins with some of the disciples together -- doing what? -- we don't know.  It seems like they were just hanging out when Peter says "I am going fishing."  And Jesus appears to them, and he gives Peter the commission to "feed my sheep," and he says words that seem like a prophecy of Peter's eventual martyrdom.

And then, again, John ends the gospel for the second time, by telling the readers that his 21 chapters are only a fraction of the stories that could be told about Jesus.  There are so many stories about Jesus that all of the books in the world could not contain them.

And the story will never end.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day 33: Praying, Suffering, Dying

"For God So Loved the World...." says John 3:16, but in John 17, when Jesus prays, I really get the feeling not of Jesus' love for the world, but the separation between the disciples and the world.  Jesus isn't praying for the world, but only for the disciples; he's not asking on behalf of the world, but only on behalf of his disciples. 
I'll be honest, there's something jarring about this, something that sounds exclusive and protective.  Perhaps these words come out of the true expenience of persecution.  Jesus knows his disciples are going to be persecuted by (ahem) the world, so he's praying for his disciples to endure.

And, I'll be blunt, it sounds a little like Jesus doesn't mind if the rest of the world goes to hell, as long as his disciples are preserved all right.  But what about "God so loved the world?"   

Perhaps the word "world" has more than one meaing for John -- sometimes the world is the world God made, and loves, and sometimes "the world" is the place that is actively fighting against God's will in the world.  And sometimes "the world" might have even more meanings.....

After his prayer is done, Jesus goes to the Kidron Valley with his disciples, where he is arrested by a company of soldiers (did you notice?  600 of them?).  When they ask if he is Jesus the Nazarene, He says, "I AM", and they all fall over.  Wow.  Jesus literally saves the disciples' lives, by saying to the guards to "let the others go" (meaning his disciples).  He will die, but they will be spared.

I really like the way the scene shifts back and forth between Peter in the courtyard and Jesus on trial.  You get the feeling that Peter is very near to the action, hearing what is going on, and that Jesus can also hear Peter when he denies ever knowing his friend.

Pilate asks Jesus, "what is truth?"  Jesus does not answer.

When Jesus is crucified, John records three different words:  "woman, here is your son.  here is your mother."  (to his mother and the beloved disciples).  "I thirst."  and "It is finished."  What do you suppose the meaning of these three words could be?  Why these words andd not "Father, forgive them?" or "Why have you forsaken me?"

One of the mysteries of the gospel of John is:  Who is the beloved disciple?  There have been many attempted answers to this question:  some say it is John himself, some Lazarus, some even Judas.  What do you think?

Who is "the world?"  Who is "the beloved disciple"?  What is "truth"?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Day 32: It all Comes Down to Love

These three chapters (14-16), right after Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him, are one long speech by Jesus.  Chapter 17 is included in that, but in chapter 17 Jesus prays for his followers -- we'll get to that later.

For three chapters, Jesus teaches his disciples what are the most important things for them to know and to remember when he is crucified, and after he is raised and ascends to God.  The Comforter will come to you.  The world will hate you.  Do not be troubled.   You will have trouble in the world.  I have to go, for if I don't go away, the Comforter/Advocate will not come to you.  There is room in my father's house.  These are some of the things that Jesus says.  But, if you read and re-read and re-re-read these three chapters, it's inescapable:  the one most important theme keeps coming back:  "Love one another as I have loved you."

Jesus has just washed their feet, bent down to serve them.  He is about to die for them.  He wants them to form a community where people are willing to die for each other, willing to live for each other, willing to serve one another.  And, more than anything else, this commitment will be a witness to the world.

Jesus speaks of his love for the Father, and the Father's love for him.  He speaks of abiding in his love, like branches draw life from the vine.  He speaks of his love for them "greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one's life for one's friends."

He calls them friends.  I don't know how many examples of deep friendship we have in our culture, but it's worth pondering:  Jesus is talking about friendship as a deep and chosen commitment.  He is talking about people who are willing to trust each other with secrets.  Jesus says we are his friends because he has entrusted us with "everything he has heard from his Father."

It all comes down to love.  Three chapters of instructions; he needs to say it over and over and over.

And over.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Day 31: Mary and Jesus Both Wash Feet

Reading both of these chapters together was sort of interesting because I noticed for the first time that the beginning of chapter 12, Mary anoints Jesus' feet, and in chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples' feet.  When Mary anoints Jesus' feet, she is at home with her sister and brother, Martha and Lazarus.  Imagine -- just a chapter ago, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and now, they are having dinner together.  Judas is the only disciple to complain about the waste (and he is named as a thief, so his motives are questioned right away).

It's after this scene that Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheering crowds.  (Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus live, is just outside Jerusalem, by the way).  Some of the cheering crowds are there because they heard about Lazarus' raising, actually.  Jesus takes the opportunity to teach about his death (unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies....).  Also, it's interesting that some Greeks want to be introduced to Jesus.  There are only a couple of references in John to followers of Jesus who are not Jewish.  This is one of them.  (The Samaritan woman in Chapter 4 is the other one.)

Though there is a lot of language in John about "The Jews", it is important to notice that all of the followers of Jesus are Jewish. 

Finally, in chapter 13, Jesus begins his final teaching of his disciples before his crucifixion.  He begins with an object lesson.  He washes their feet.  And then he tells them the most important thing he wants them to know:  "Love one another as I have loved you."

Seems simple, right?  Then why is it so hard to do?