Sunday, October 25, 2015

First Time For Everything

There's no telling what I might do. 

Acts 11:1-18

New International Version (NIV)

Peter Explains His Actions

11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Here in Chap 11 we see a reiteration of everything that has happened in Chap 10. 

Peter has to come back to Jerusalem and give an account of all that has happened. 
One thing that I'm raking through my mind is - did he really? Or, maybe more accurately, what he intending to? The only reason Peter has to come back to Jerusalem and retell the entire narrative is because there are so many people retelling it themselves. All the commotion is enough that there are people back in Jerusalem that want to here what happened from the man himself. Peter. 

What is their problem? The statement is just the same rhetoric that they heard when Jesus was here walking with them. The Pharisees were always giving Jesus a hard time because of the company that he kept. Jesus ate with "sinners". Jesus kept a relationship going with the poor and downtrodden in society. The religious leaders just didn't understand why in the world he would want to hang around with them. As the world turns and changes after Christ's Resurrection and Ascension, there are believers here who clearly have found salvation in the name of Jesus, but are still clinging to the ways of that have been taught to them as Jewish people. You don't hang around with Gentile people. Those people are outside of our social network. Those people are not a part of our religious community. Those people don't look like us, sound like us, believe like us. That social and religious fragment of their theology and philosophy is a hard thing for some to shake. 

I can't help but make the shift right into our own world.
How many times has a person had to come to board meeting and give an account of why they spent some church funds on this project or why they went to this place and did some kind of ministry? How many times over the years have you heard about someone getting chewed out by some long standing church member because this certain someone did some kind of ministry that long standing church member just doesn't approve of? That's right where the Apostle Peter is in this moment. Criticism is a harsh agent. Criticism has to do with perception. The hardest part about handling criticism is that people don't always have all the facts before that perception is formulated and then dished out through their critique. These leaders back in Jerusalem have stories being throw to them. All they are hearing is enough to stir the pot and get the fires burning. 

Now, Peter has to tell them his side of the story. 
We know how it all goes. We've been reading it over the last month. God spoke to some Roman soldier through a angelic vision. God spoke to Peter through a vision of his own. Some of the men came to find Peter. He goes back to Caesarea and tell them about salvation in the name of Jesus. To the person who is focused on following our Lord, the account doesn't sound disturbing at all. Unless we are harboring some kind of prejudice or bias in our hearts. It's not just as simple as sharing the message of jesus with some people. It's about whom it was shared with.  We have been eluding to it for months. Now, it is here. There is clearly a racial and social issue to deal with in our make-up. It's hard for us to grasp just reading some words off a page. We don't see it as we read. We can't see color or race in these black words on white pages. The reading of this kind of scripture need for our attention to turn to our own world and see the prejudices that are prevalent right before us to fully understand. We need to see the lack of desire to share the message of salvation with those outside of our own immediate circles of race or preference. Only then does the message of our scripture begin to make sense. 

“Race” is a random human term. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mark Schoofs writes, “Not only is our concept of race arbitrary, but it is based on a relatively insignificant difference between people. Skin pigment, eye shape, and hair type are all determined by genes.”
Anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott writes that humans cannot be compartmentalized into racial categories:
However, even if people in different geographic areas differ, it is impossible to draw sharp lines between racial groups. Few if any populations are cut off from others, and even if laws, culture, and/or religion prohibit it, mating does take place. Characteristics of people change gradually from one geographic area to another; where across Central Asia do European ‘whites’ leave off and Asian ‘yellows’ begin? Anthropologists see races as temporary, changing phenomena, products of genetic processes and natural selection. The races we see today are different from those of yesterday and will be different tomorrow.3
“Race” is a random human term. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mark Schoofs writes, “Not only is our concept of race arbitrary, but it is based on a relatively insignificant difference between people. Skin pigment, eye shape, and hair type are all determined by genes.”
- See more at:

In Sept 2014, a California eighth grader was placed in detention for having a good heart. He shared his brown-bagged chicken burrito Tuesday with a classmate who didn’t like what the school cafeteria was offering–cheese sandwiches. Kyle Bradford, a 13-year-old student at Weaverville Elementary School didn’t see the harm in it, according to local ABC affiliate KRCR Channel 7 News. Said the child:
It seemed like he couldn’t get a normal lunch so I just wanted to give mine to him because I wasn’t really that hungry and it was just going to go in the garbage if I didn’t eat it.
It was a variance to the time-honored tradition of comparing and trading school lunches.
But citing hygiene and possible food allergy issues, the sharing of meals at Weaverville is forbidden.
Tom Barnett, the district superintendent, explained:
We have a policy that prohibits students from exchanging meals. Of course if students are concerned about other students not having enough to eat we would definitely want to consider that, but because of safety and liability we cannot allow students to actually exchange meals.
But Bradford believes he did the right thing–and his mother, Sandy Bradford, agrees. She would prefer that the school concentrate its efforts on education:
By all means the school can teach them math and the arithmetic and physical education, but when it comes to morals and manners and compassion, I believe it needs to start at home with the parent.

 If only the issues before us could be so easily resolved.
This matter in Acts 11 seems as if it was just too easy. It should have been harder than this. But, the words the wrap up this section in verse 18 make it sound like everything is peas and carrots.
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Why isn't it that easy in our own world? Why is it that we have to spend 3 hours in a board meeting hashing and rehashing our biases and feelings about issues that truly should be simple to resolve. (Oh, I've sat through some loooong meetings.) When God speaks, when God shows us what we need to do and why & how we need to do it, the response should be to follow. God wants us to share the message with everyone we come into contact with. No one is "unclean". Places where we wouldn't normally find ourselves going, that's exactly where we need to go. People we wouldn't normally find ourselves talking to or sharing a meal with, that's exactly who we should be talking to and sharing what we have. Put the shoes on the other feet. How would you feel if you were excluded because of your skin color or shunned because of your race?

Jesus loves everybody.
You ought love everyone too.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

No Favorites

God has a funny way of making a point.

Acts 10:23-48

New International Version (NIV)

Peter at Cornelius’s House

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Previously we saw where God had spoken to Peter in a vision.
A sheet came down from heaven showing him all kinds of animals that would have been considered unclean. In other words, a Jewish person would not have taken them for food. As we covered in previous weeks, the Hebrew religious life centered around the idea that God has set them apart as God's holy people. This viewpoint, though, seems to have warped their idea of the mission to be a light to the world around them. As Peter would say to Cornelius' household - "
You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile." For the Jew, who they associated with and spent time around was very serious business. Even in their own society, the rich did not associate with poor. The religious did not associate with people they considered not pious or unrighteous. Then comes the idea of speaking with or carrying on a conversation with someone outside of their cultural setting. A "gentile" would be anyone outside of the Jewish life. Regardless of their nationality, the idea of associating with someone that did not believe in the Almighty God of the Hebrew faith was expressly forbidden. 

It's time to bust up a comfort zone. 

Let's take this right to the doorstep of application.
Blacks & Whites. The Haves & the Have-nots. Christians & anyone of any other faith. 

Going outside of our own world of culture or social norm or economic status is an unwritten rule that causes more than a few eyebrows to be raised and more a few sweaty palms in the church pew. God intends for believers to cross lines in order to spread the message of what Christ has done. The focus of this Christian faith is not ourselves. It is Christ. The message is about what Christ has done for the world. We are the vessels that carry that message. The real issue for all of us is that of surrender. Are we surrendered so that God could take us and use wherever he wants to take us and use us? Peter has some ideas in his head that have been taught to him since he was young and he has held these ideas as central to his religious life. Then God comes and takes those ideas and break them up. It's still a hard thing to part with in our hearts even after God shines the light down the path we must go. 

Peter comes all the way to Cornelius' house still hanging on to the idea that he probably shouldn't be connecting with these Roman people. But, God has shown him a vision. There is an air reluctance in Peter's words. However, there is enough surrender in Peter's heart that he cannot hang tight to those convictions he has grown up living by. He comes to Caesarea, because he believes that this what he has been directed to do by the Holy Spirit. All convictions and biases go out the window when we realize that God has spoken. "So, when I was sent for I came without raising any objection." What our passage here in Acts shows us is that the need to share the message of Christ supersedes our prejudices. Everyone needs to know about Christ. Everyone needs a chance to hear. Regardless of their religious views. Regardless of the economic standing.  Regardless of what we personally think about them on a racial or social level. "For God so loved the world..." Everyone. That means you. That means the person across the street. That means the black man holding up the cardboard sign on the side of the freeway. God loves everybody. 

The other major issue that is addressed here is that of how God chooses to bless people.
God wants to pour out his Holy Spirit upon us. However, in our religious and theological frameworks, we tend to think that it has to happen in a certain order, in a certain way. I recall again my time with the Nazarenes and how they seemed to have a specific stipulation about where and when salvation and then sanctification had to occur. A person wasn't saved unless that had prayed and accepted Christ at the altar, in the presence of elders of the church and the pastor. Sanctification happened when the group came and laid hands upon you while praying for you to receive the Holy Spirit. If my religious experience has shown me anything it is that God can do whatever God wants to do in whatever order God wants to do it in. That is most certainly what God is showing Peter here. The principal of the Christian faith is belief. It is not order or ritual. We do not put our faith a how we came to the place believing. We put our faith in the One who saves us. 

These people in Cornelius' house have not been formally introduced to Christ. They believe in "God".
As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, "God" is a pretty broad subject until we come to hear and understand the name of Jesus Christ. They hear it. They believe what Peter has shown to them. They have not been baptized yet, or made any sign that they have repented and put their sins behind them. God instead pours out his Spirit upon them. God could be showing Peter that he has the freedom to do things out of order. He could also be showing Peter the evidence that these people actually believe his message. The two ideas go hand in hand. I know as a preacher that I would love to see the evidence that what I am saying is getting through to the hearts of the people I am speaking to. Instead of making a big deal about the exact order of things, God pours out the Spirit before these Roman folks have actually made their commitment through the sacrament of baptism. Reading through this passage gives me even more confidence in how we as United Methodists approach baptism with our emphasis upon God's grace reaching down to us making us a child of God. The important part is not our commitment, but that of God's confirmation that we belong to Him. That validation should cause us to want to make a commitment to God in Jesus Christ. 

"Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." Do you know either blessing? Have you been baptized? Do you know what it means to be made a child of the Almighty God? Have you given your life to Christ and asked him to come into your heart and life? Do you know what it is to receive the Holy Spirit? Has God poured out his blessing on you? Have you asked? Have you sought with your heart? Have you knocked on the door? 

Jesus comes to your door. Regardless of your race. Regardless of what society might think of you. Regardless of what you might think of others in society. Regardless of your prejudices and your hardheartedness. God comes to you. He longs to bring you near. He longs to make you his child. 

What are you waiting for?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Have You Been Smoking?

God can speak through the strangest things. 

Acts 10:9-23

New International Version (NIV)

Peter’s Vision

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

When I was a teenager I heard my dad utter these words more than once.
I would rattle off some cockamamie idea or share some plan I had in my head. He would from at me with those wrinkles that lined his forehead. "What in the world are you smoking?" As I read through this passage with Peter and his vision I immediately realize that at some point he will have to tell someone about his vision. If we were his audience and we are hearing about this event afterwards what would go through our mind? Would we embrace his thoughts and words or would we brush him aside and call up a friend? "Hey, you're never going to believe what Peter just told me..."

God has been speaking directly to people these last couple of chapters in Acts.
Jesus shines in a bright light to Saul on the road to Damascus. Cornelius the centurion has a vision of an angel coming to speak to him. Now, the Apostle Peter has a vision. But, it's not a simple direct message. It requires some interpretation. We will dive more into that next week. The questions we should delve into this week is are - What does it take for God to get our attention? What does God have to do in order to get us to listen to what he has to say? 

Check out this story found in a copy of Weavings, an Upper Room publication.
A counselor tells this story.  

A few years ago, a woman I shall call "Catherine," an affluent 67-year-old widow of a local physician, came to me for counseling. She complained that something was not quite right with her life, but she had not been able to determine what was wrong. During our conversation, Catherine spoke of her involvement in those activities we associate with retirement---travel, club functions, volunteer activities, church work, close friendships, control over her own time, and grandchildren who actually sought her company. In addition, she enjoyed excellent health. As she spoke of her travels around the world and her adventures as an importer of antiques, I thought to myself, not a little enviously, "What a lovely life this women has. If she's not happy with all this, she must be clinically depressed." In my mind I proceeded to race ahead of her story to develop a fitting diagnosis and a plan for treatment. But one phrase stopped my thoughts dead in their tracks. In a tone close to desperation she said, "I'm playing 'antique bingo' in the same way that other people play real bingo: just to kill time amusing myself." She claimed that despite the fullness of her life, she was missing something. "You know, I've kept very busy all of my life: I've always had something to do, somewhere to go, somebody to be with. But now I don't want to do any of that; I don't SAVOR anything! Lately I've begun to withdraw from so many activities, and my friends and family are becoming worried about me... To be honest, my daughter is the one who sent me to you.

"I don't really think I'm depressed.. it's just that underneath it all I have a feeling that there's more to life than what I have experienced. I just can't seem to get in touch with what this "something more" is."

I suddenly realized that this vital woman was not depressed according to the usual clinical definition, nor was she still mourning her husband's death. Instead, what Catherine seemed to be experiencing was a loss of the sense of meaning in her life. I asked her about her spiritual life. "I go to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening - have for years. I have taught Sunday school for the past 26 years, and have been president of one church committee or another for my entire adult life. But sometimes church isn't speaking to the way I'm feeling right now. It's just another activity."

"That's your CHURCH life," I said. "What is going on between you and God?" There was a long pause. "Nothing", she replied "and to be perfectly honest, there are times in the middle of the night when I wonder if there really is a God who is concerned with the minutiae of human life. Yet there are other times when I crave God, but I can't seem to make the connection."

She paused, then her eyes widened, as though she had just discovered something. "I know what it is that I want---and nothing else will do. I want to experience God. It seems as though I've been behaving well and working for someone I've read and heard about, but have never actually met."
 Maybe the question isn't so much about what God needs to do to get our attention, but where do we need to be so that we can hear God speak. As I see Peter in this moment in Joppa, God comes to him along lines he would get and understand. The vision comes to Peter not once or twice, but three times. Now where else did "three times" come into play in the story of Peter? 

John 21:15-19

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Reinstates Peter

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

I don't believe God uses this "three times" method as a way to rub anything in with Peter. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Peter is also restored through a "three times" method. Jesus wants him to go and feed the sheep. Now, God comes with a unmistakable moment. God will come along the lines we are familiar with in order to get us to here what he is saying. I look back on my own life and realize that God has done this with me. I was 21 at time. Goodness that was a long time ago. I had done something I shouldn't have earlier in the day. I had asked for forgiveness, but the guilt was still riding me. At the time I was working third shift in a 24 hour grocery store. I went into work that night still feeling heavy with shame. As I carried some boxes behind the meat counter and into the back room, I heard a voice. Not audible, like you and I speak to each other. But still, it was there. I heard it in my ears. "Does anyone here condemn you?" I stepped back out of the meat dept door. My arms still full of boxes. I glanced up and down the meat counter. There wasn't a soul around. I know I heard myself say, "No". "Neither do I condemn you." 

Now, why in the world did God have to wait until I was at work to do that?
Why couldn't he have lifted that weight off my shoulders before I even got to work that night? Why did I need to get to work before that could happen? I have no idea. I've pondered that aspects of it all. At work I was dealing with people all night long. Ringing people up at the register, Helping people find things in the aisles. Talking with a co-worker. Then there was a moment when no one was around. That didn't happen very often. Of course nobody was around at home. That would just be too obvious. maybe God needed to get to me in a moment that would make sense. For Peter, this moment would make sense if God came to him in threes. It's something he is familiar with and Peter would know beyond a shadow of a doubt it was God doing the speaking. 

What do you do when you've never had that kind of vision? That's somewhere we should probably go with all this. Maybe you've never really heard God speak or had some amazing revelation about anything. I like the music of Chris Rice. Music is a special way God has spoken to me over the years. There's a particular song that Chris did back in 2000. "Smell the Color 9" is a song that describes what it's like to follow God without having those lofty visions and always feeling the presence all around. Not everybody gets those kinds of signs and wonders in their lives. You might feel challenged as you live your life following Jesus. Why don't I get a have some kind of "calling" or ever feel that God is speaking to me? Check out these lyrics.
I would take no for an answer
Just to know I heard You speak
And I'm wonderin' why I've never
Seen the signs they claim they see
Are the special revelations
Meant for everbody but me?
Maybe I don't truly know You
Or maybe I just simply believe

'Cause I can sniff, I can see
And I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren't getting me
Any closer to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps poundin'
So I know I'm doin' fine
But sometimes finding You
Is just like trying to smell the color 9
Smell the color 9

Now I've never felt the presence
But I know You're always near
And I've never heard the calling
But somehow You've lead me right here
So I'm not looking for burning bushes
Or some divine graffiti to appear
I'm just begging You for Your wisdom
And believe You're putting some here

'Cause I can sniff, I can see
And I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren't getting me
Any close to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps poundin'
So I know I'm doin' fine
But sometimes finding You
Is just like trying to smell the color 9
I can sniff, I can see
And I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren't getting me
Any closer to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps poundin'
So I know I'm doin' fine
But sometimes finding You
Is just like trying to
Smell the color 9

Well, 9's not a color
And even if it were you can't smell a color, no
That's my point exactly

God is close. God is near. Whether you can feel it or not. Whether you have great notions or incredible feelings. When it came to sanctification back during my time with the Nazarenes, they used to have a way of making a person feel inferior because they didn't have an incredible feeling of "How the fire fell" from heaven and made us sanctified. I beat my own head on a wooden altar for a long time before I finally came to the realization that it didn't have to happen that way. I didn't have to have the same experience everyone else did. Most people sitting around me in the pews never had that kind of experience either. Some person back down the road had that experience and wrote a hymn about it. 80, 90 years later, here we were singing it and expecting God to move in exactly that way. Faith isn't a feeling. Faith is something confident that we can hang on to despite what we feel. 

Whether we have some grand vision or whether we have walked through life in some quiet manner, the following is true. The focus must be on God. As people come to find Peter, he has to make sense of what he thinks God wants him to do. If these men had come to find him without some visions about animals and blankets being lifted into the sky, Peter would still have to determine what God wanted him to do. He would still have to trust and follow. It is what we are to do if we intend to follow Jesus in this life. Give all we have to Him and walk. He will be right there with us. No matter what we face. No matter what we go through.

Others might think there is something wrong with us.
Describing a vision or a voice from above might through them for a loop. Simple explaining what Jesus means to us might be enough to make them wrinkle up their brow. They might wonder what we've been smoking. It might make some look at us funny. maybe they won't speak well of us or understand what we are telling them. That's just how it is. Smell the color 9. Trust God and follow.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I Hear Jesus Calling

God is speaking.

Acts 10:1-8

New International Version (NIV)

Cornelius Calls for Peter

10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

 A little further up the coast from Joppa is a place called Caesarea.
Caesarea in the time of Jesus was a major port city build by King Herod in honor of his friend, the leader of the Roman Empire, Ceasar. At this time in our story in Acts, a centurion is stationed here. Last week we saw Peter coming through the areas of Lydda and Joppa. He heals people and then decides to rest in Joppa for awhile.

As we enter into Chap 10 of Acts the account will settle around the coming together of two cultures. We know from our earlier readings of Acts that there are Jewish people who have embraced the Greek culture as they have lived outside of the region of Israel. However, there hasn't been any sign that the Jews on the Hebraic side have in any way embraced their fellow Jews in the Hellenistic culture. There has always been this sense of tension. We saw it in Chap 6. The Jews on the Hellenistic side are squabbling about their widows being overlooked in the distribution of daily food. The Jewish people were long ago set apart as God's holy people. They have seen themselves as the ones through whom salvation would come. But, what they seemed to miss was that they were to be a light to the world around them. Jesus would push that emphasis. 

Matthew 5:14-16

New International Version (NIV)
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Cornelius is not a Jew. He is a centurion in the Italian Regiment.
Now, what is that? A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman army. Cornelius has command of a legion of soldiers, most likely from the region known as Italy. But, what seems out of place is there is specific reference given here that suggests he and his household are people who "
prayed to God regularly". How in the world would a man in the Roman army come to be a person who worships "God"? It makes me wonder what kind of influence was in his life. It makes me wonder who he has interacted with and who he has spoken with that would lead him and his family to become people who focus specifically on "God". That belief in God causes him to be very charitable. The way he and his family live their lives causes others to think of them as "devout" and "God-fearing". This man has a reputation and it is a good one. The kind of reputation you want to have. 

However, for all that "goodness" he seems to possess there is something missing.
Have you ever felt that? For all the good you have done, for all the charitable gestures you have done, for all the "good" that might be associated with you there is still something more. Cornelius doesn't know who Jesus is. He simply knows about "God". God is a pretty broad subject until we narrow it down to the person of Jesus Christ. There are all kinds of religions and groups in the world who make a reference to God. There are many people who believe in "God". The Arabic word "Allah" simply means "God". Those in the Islamic faith would like to take ownership of the word for their own specific religion. Fine. Take it. There's more to the subject and person of "God" than that. When we bring the subject of God to the person of Jesus Christ, then we are making a drastic statement. It is a statement that this man Cornelius needs to hear. 

God is taking the first steps in making sure that the Gospel goes forth and spreads.
That's what God does. He goes before us. Look at what God is doing. First he reaches out to the chief violator and persecutor of the faith bringing Saul to his knees and causes him to change his path in life. Now, God speaks out to a man on the other side of the cultural line. What does this mean? Why would God reach out to the guy on the outside? It really shouldn't seem like all that strange of an occurrence. God has been speaking through other people to Israel for centuries. Rising up a nation to punish them when they were not listening. Grafting in outsiders to the lineage of the very Messiah who would save all. 
Why wouldn't God go to Peter first and just tell him to go find Cornelius? Peter is the preacher here. Isn't it Peter's job to go preach the Gospel message to others? What we are seeing here is that God goes before us. God makes the message possible to be preached. John Wesley would speak of prevenient grace. It is the grace of God that goes before us before we even realize that God is present and working in our lives. The central focus here is not Cornelius or Peter. The central focus is God. Cornelius has been praying to God regularly and seems to be a devout person whose life is centered of God. Our passage today says that God sees all this. While I don't like the statement it seems to work here. "God helps those who help themselves" If those words hold any truth then think about this... If we are actually seeking God, if we want God in our lives, then God is going to show up. And, we we need to be ready. 

The thing is... we don't have any idea when God is going to move.
We pray. We seek. We ask. When God moves it is on God's time table. Not ours.
God sees a man here in Cornelius who is willing and receptive to the message. That is what God is looking for. People with hearts who are wide open to whatever will happen. There is a certain amount of surrender that is necessary for the Christian life to be possible. It is not just about believing that "God" exists. Then, we wander off and do whatever we want to do. If we are serious about our belief in God then be ready to hear God speak. God knows that there is more that Cornelius needs to hear. Is there more than we need to hear? Many times people who believe in God make it their business to tell other people what they need to believe and what they need to live their lives. Maybe we could learn a lesson from Cornelius. You don't get a reputation that is "devout" by simply telling others what to do. Leading others is what Cornelius does for a living. But, it is his charitable nature that gives him the notable character remembered by others.

Something else about Cornelius' character that seems to shine through in this rather short passage of scripture is that he is not someone who demands his own way. A person does not get a title hung on them such as "devout" if they are a person who has to have everything their own way. Listen to the definition of devout. 

Full Definition of DEVOUT

1:  devoted to religion or to religious duties or exercises
2:  expressing devotion or piety <a devout attitude>
3 a :  devoted to a pursuit, belief, or mode of behavior :  serious, earnest <a devout baseball fan> <born a devout coward — G. B. Shaw>
   b :  warmly sincere <a devout wish for peace>
Being devout means being dedicated to something higher and loftier than one's own ambitions and thoughts. Many a person who would like to classify themselves as a "Christian" should probably be labeled as a "good person". Cornelius is not a Christian yet. Jesus Christ is what makes a person a Christian. Cornelius doesn't know that name yet.  That's why Peter is needed here. There is a message that Peter needs to bring here so that these "good people" can come to know what salvation means. The good work and the devout life are not enough. Good people can be "warmly sincere", as the definition suggests. I used to work with a guy named Mike who hated that "warm" notion. Mike used to talk about some of those old ladies in the baptist church he grew up in who would always say that everything was "nice". "Oh, isn't that nice." "That's so nice" He noted this falseness in their responses. Mike would say, "If you're having a bad day, say you're having a bad day. Don't put on some fake face and walk around like everything is "nice". It's one thing to be devout, religious, ritualistic. We find out through following Jesus that there is more to this life. We can really know what "nice" actually is.
And, yet, I would like to think that what Cornelius has is better than what most "good people" in our society have going on. There was a day and time where I would have classified my dad as a very devout person. Very disciplined. Up every morning. Read his bible. Worked hard. Went to church. A "good man". But, it was after a week long event with one of Billy Graham's associates, John Wesley White, that I truly saw a change in my father. I saw a guy go from someone who did all the right religious things to actually become a person that is focused on what it means to walk with Jesus. There was a certain amount of surrender I noticed from that point forward. 

Surrender is what we need to see as central to our Christian lives.
How many times has God spoken and we have brushed it aside? Cornelius gets one of the billboard moments going down the interstate of life.Those moments are easy enough to brush aside. We can keep on driving and forget about the sign we saw or heard or witnessed. We can ignore the gifts and abilities that God gave us because we don't want to surrender to the call he has put on our lives. We can ignore the vision put squarely in front of us. If we answer it, though, we will find a blessing only God can give. Cornelius' household will find that blessing soon when Peter arrives. 

The blessing will only be realized when we answer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dorcas Circle Prayer Group

Abounding in good deeds. 

Acts 9:32-43

New International Version (NIV)

Aeneas and Dorcas

32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”
39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

 Lydda is almost right smack in the middle of this strip of land known as Israel, northwest of Jerusalem towards the Mediterranean Sea. Lydda is today known as Lod. Most famously, Lod is known as the place of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. Which is also the year that Israel was put back on the map as a country once again. Jewish settlers, mainly from Arab countries along with a count of 1,056 Arabs who chose to stay, went in and replanted a Hebrew culture into the land once again. 

It is through this region that much history has happened over the years. "Lod" was destroyed not long after Jerusalem when the Romans attacked around 70 AD, but was soon rebuilt, and became the seat of a famous Jewish school. A Christian church was here, organized, and was in existence A. D. 518. Lydda is often mentioned in the history of the crusades. It was situated in the midst of fine and extensive plains, the soil of which is a rich black mould, that might be rendered exceedingly fertile. The ruins of a stately church of the middle ages, called the church of St. George, preserve the name of a saint and martyr said to have been buried here in the third century. The English crusaders adopted him as the "patron" of England, and many fabulous legends tell of his exploits. Yet it is a small enough place that it hasn't gotten much recognition. It is only mentioned a few times in the Old Testament basically with a census statement. Just one time is it mentioned in the New Testament in reference to our scripture today in Acts. 

It is, however, to the small and insignificant that we should pay particular attention.
One of those lesser known people is someone named Aeneas. His name is said to mean "praised" or "praiseworthy". And, wouldn't he have much to praise God about after this day. Could you imagine being bedridden for eight years? Not being able to walk. Not being able to get up and go anywhere. I know a few in my congregation who not handle this well at all. Being denied the basic ability to move around can be debilitating to the point of mental instability. Most recently one of our own dear ladies in this congregation fell and broke her leg. The ordeal puts her in bed not being able to walk. The long trial and recovery was hard, but she came through it and has gotten back on her feet. 8 years. That's how long Aeneas has been down and not gotten up. This day, though, the Apostle Peter has decided to visit and all is changed in the twinkling of an eye. In Jesus like fashion Peter tells this man to "get up and roll up your mat". Just like that Aeneas' life is changed. 

The books of Acts is full of the supernatural. God is moving mightily through the believers. They are simply praying and asking. I wonder if someone in Joppa was praying for an answer because that's where Peter heads next. It's a simple trip, from Lydda to Joppa. Mileage-wise it's about the same as taking a walk from Thornville to nearby Mt Perry. Sure, lets just get out on the road and walk it. Few of us in our current society would simply walk somewhere because we feel led to do the work of the Lord. In Peter's time it was the only way to do things. 

Think about how long this would have taken. Our scripture says that people heard through word of mouth that Peter was in Lydda. That means some people would have traveled, walking, to Joppa. They spread the word about Peter being Lydda. Two men from Joppa take off walking to Lydda in order to find Peter. However long it took to find him and persuade him to come back to Joppa, then they have to get back on the road and get to Joppa. If all of this happens in the same day it has to be late when Peter finally gets to Joppa. Which would make sense if we fit this in with the story of a lady who has died. 

The lady is named Tabitha. In Greek, though, her name is translated "Dorcas".
She might seem like an insignificant person. Just pronouncing her name doesn't leave a very enticing or admirable thought in the mind. "Dorcas". Sounds rather silly. Sounds like someone who might not seem very smart or well read. But, it is exactly this kind of person with this kind of name that our God can use to express real love. There is a reason why our scripture says that the ladies are showing Peter all the garments and items that Dorcas has made for them over the years.
She seems to have had some means and also to have been a leader in the Christian community. Dorcas was beloved for the manner in which she used her position and means, since she "was full of good works, and almsdeeds which she did." Among her charities was the clothing of the poor with garments she herself made, and by following her example, numerous "Dorcas societies" in the Christian church perpetuate her memory. There is a local memorial in the "Tabitha School" in Joppa devoted to the care and education of poor girls.

Even today the name is still at the center of our Christian, and especially, our Methodist culture. Take the time to search the words "Dorcas Circle" on Google and you'll find a long list United Methodist Women's groups bearing the name. The picture on the front of our bulletins this morning is the symbol used by the UMW group at the Elyria Community UM Church in Elyria, OH. "Dorcas Circle" "Dorcas-Ruth" is very popular UMW group name you'll find if you take the time to search. Our church has two groups for a long time until the Dorcas Circle became the main group. It is the things that Dorcas UMW groups have stood for an supported over the years that have made them what they are. Groups of women devoted to making the world a better place to live in. The social causes that these women have taken upon themselves to minister in and finding ways to be help and hope are the very reason we have such a creed to stand upon in the UM Church.

It is no wonder that these people of Joppa take the time to seek out Peter and bring him back. Dorcas is a woman they have grown to admire and depend upon. It's never easy to say goodbye. Even when you know that the person has been sick and death is most likely expected. When Peter arrives, he is introduced to the society that has been formed around Dorcas' hospitality. These ladies are in mourning over the friend that have lost. Peter sends them all out of the room. The apostle has been here before. Remember the little girl and the parents came to find Jesus. The Messiah sent all out of the room except for the "inner three", Peter, James and John. And, so, the apostle follows the order he has witnessed. And, just as he has seen his Savior and Lord do, Peter simply whispers the words.

"Tabitha, get up."

It is said that the event became well known all over the area.
Maybe not just because it was Peter who came and whispered a command, but because of a woman who took it upon herself to make sure that other needs were met. Dorcas helped create something in the midst of her society that would be missed if it ever came to an end. We all get old and die. That's just a universal truth. Dorcas is blessed with a while longer to live. And, while she is there in the place called Joppa she plans to use what she has and who she is to be a blessing to other people.

It is the emphasis of the UMW to become disciples of Jesus. We can learn much about our Christian journey from the work we see going on in the realm of these ladies. Look at all our own ladies have accomplished just this year at Thornville United Methodist. Bereavement dinners alone can serve as a beacon of hope. Over the years there have been dinners that have fed hungry families and brought comfort to people who have been grieving. Food is a central ministry to not just our ladies, but to our church. However, the ladies have led the way on this. Our "hospitality room" during the heat of July at the Thorndunker event has been a major source of relief for people. The food coming out of this kitchen during the Thornville Country Fair is another moment when people talk about our church and the lore spreads. Now, we have a Backpack Ministry and ladies across our church have been dropping food outside the office door in order to help feed hungry kids at the elementary school to help them make it through the weekend.

Cancer is an ugly mark on the life if human beings. I wish that no one would have to deal with this hideous disease. And, so do the ladies that make up Team Deidee. Many of our UMW ladies have come together with a strong front of prayer and support to help each other and to lift up those who are going through the trials and tribulation of fighting for their own lives. This team of women make their way to New Lexington each spring to rally with our people across Perry County in order to bring awareness about the disease and remember those who have battled with this deadly illness. Some have survived. Some have passed on. All are winners. And everyone deserves reinforcement through prayer and a hand to hold.

Most recently these ladies have stood together as they have packed the school kit bags to send off to Church World Service as part of the Festival of Sharing. These school kits go all over the world to help kids who are struggling just to get the simplest supplies together to start the school year. And, here I see someone in our midst who could be a modern day "Dorcas". Our prayers go out to Louise and Tom Beckett. As life goes on for these two in the midst of age and pain this lady still finds a way to go out and buy material to make the bags while seeking out the supplies to fill those bags. She gives all she has for this purpose. Someday we'll have to say goodbye to her. In the meantime, let us join in with her goodwill and self-sacrifice as she seeks to put other peoples needs above her own.

In the midst of our small insignificant town, how can we follow the example of Dorcas?
How can we be people of the sacred and the holy as we seek to give our lives as a living sacrifice?
How can we give all we have to make sure that others have enough? There is much to pray about. There is much to lift up before the Lord. There is much to bring life to, just as life was given to her.

Let's spend some time in that sweet hour of prayer. Lord use us and make us your own.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Good Will Hunting

The hunter becomes the hunted. 

Acts 9:19-31

New International Version (NIV)

Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, 24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews,[a] but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

 As we covered Saul's conversion experience last week, I realized we did not spend any time on anything else in the passage. Specifically, his blindness. As much as I wanted to say something profound upon that event, the more I dwelt upon it the more I felt it wasn't that significant. His blindness only lasted a short while and his eyes sight was restored. Trying to correlate or sympathize with anyone who had lost their eyesight permanently seemed demeaning to the person inflicted with that state of being. Saul does lose his eyesight. It seemed to be done as a way to get his attention and let him know that this is truly serious business. His eyesight is restored by a disciple named Ananias. Hesitantly, the disciple approaches and follows the Lord orders. Saul is given his sight back and with it comes not just enlightenment as to whom he is dealing with, but instantaneous purpose as to what he is here to do. 

Purpose. It is a difficult thing to define and an even more elusive matter when someone is seeking what they are truly meant to do in life. Some folks are meant to be in the bright lights and some are meant to stand behind the scenes. You can be happy in either place as long as you know in your heart that the thing you are doing is what you are supposed to do.

As I prepared for this passage from vv19-30 this morning, I was drawn to the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting". Aside from the crude language, I felt as if there were some interesting parallels to be drawn from the film to this scripture. If you've never seen the movie, the story centers around a young man named Will Hunting. Will is a boy genius in the world of math. However, he never jumps on the desire to pursue any kind of future in that direction as he is held back by much of his disturbing past. As we have covered Saul's narrative, I have asked the question "What drives a man to become such a persecutor of others?" In the movie, Will comes off as a punk who has a truly incredible gift. Saul feels that way to me. It seems as if religion comes to him naturally. Both of them treat other people with a crudeness that seems unjustifiable. 

However, both of them also turn dramatic corners in their lives.
Saul has an encounter with the Savior on the Damascus road. Will finds out that it's appropriate to love and trust people. Both of them find that there is purpose for their lives. That purpose just happens to be in the field of work they are truly gifted. For Saul, there is no pause in the discussion, it seems. Our scripture says that "
At once he began to preach in the synagogues..." He goes from conversion to preacher immediately. This a road that has led to tragedy for many. Many of the TV preachers we see and hear about did not take any time to go away and learn from others about what it means to preach and do ministry. There are many in holiness circles who would interpret the work of the Holy Spirit as the defining issue that should put someone into a preaching position. 1 Cor 12 lays out the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to people. I have heard the argument from those who would say, "The Holy Spirit gave the gift..." OK, that's great. Maybe there is some education and development needed of said gifts before we as the students and followers just jump out there and start running our mouths. 

What is needed is witness. Witness that Jesus is, in fact, real in our lives.
Saul doesn't hesitate to demonstrate that experience he has had on the Damascus road was real. His speech, his actions, his new faith is seen by all. Purpose envelops Saul. Jesus is his new found purpose. Everyone needs to know about this Jesus. You will recall me mentioning a young man named Matt. He was my best friend in high school and I stand where I am today because he wanted everyone around him to find Jesus. After his tryout with the Marines at Paris Island did not go the way he wanted, Jesus showed up in his life. Jesus turned his life upside down. Matt then felt the need to turn everyone else's life upside down. Saul doesn't delay in getting right out there into the culture he had formerly been tyrannizing. The problem that lies before him is that everyone will not want to hear from him. 

Maybe it's been a while since you've heard the phrase. "Not everybody is going to like you." 
No words could be more true in the life of a person that it is for Saul right now. The disciples he tries to interact with are scared of him. All they remember are the persistent threats he has put on the lives of those trusting in Jesus. The Jews in the area have set up watches at the city gates to try and catch him if he leaves town. The hunter has now become the hunted. Good will. There doesn't seem to be much of it. This much needed commodity is in short supply in Damascus, a city where religious life has thrived for centuries. The sacred souls of this long inhabited city are missing something. If I'm in Saul's shoes I'm probably wishing just one person would be willing to stand beside me and stand up for me.

In Good Will Hunting, Will comes into contact with Sean, a counselor he is set up with to try and get him to open up. Sean turns out to be the one person, outside of some high school friends, who really believes in him. Sean stands up for Will in the face of adversity and criticism. When it seems no one believes in this newest convert that a man named Barnabas is the only one to stand up for him. We were introduced to Barnabas back in Chap 4 of Acts. His name means "son of encouragement". In Saul's traveling and witnessing he makes his way to Jerusalem. It seems nobody wants to talk to him. There is no "good will" here either. But, Barnabas is there and he introduces Saul to the apostles. We all need a Barnabas. Sometimes, we need to be a Barnabas to someone else. We need someone who can relate to us and share in our life story. Barnabas can tell others that he sees Christ in the life of this Saul. 

This is the encouragement we need. Someone to help guide us and direct us. 
Saul's days of debating and preaching would be cut short. He has exhibited that the Lord is truly in his life. Now, in the face of persecution, there will be people to help support him. Instead of jumping right into some kind of full time life sharing Jesus with those around him supporters will shuffle him away to Tarsus, mostly for his protection. Wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't we all like it if there were people around us to help make sure we didn't get in over our heads, get burnt out, maybe even keep us from dying. Later, the apostle Paul would reflect upon his earlier days and state he wound up in Egypt learn from some rabbis and enriching his knowledge of Christ. Then, he would come back. Then he would begin his journeys. Then he would be ready to share Christ on a more open stage. 

Our scripture says that peace followed these events. The church grew and flourished. Living in the fear of the Lord and following the leading of the Holy Spirit, their numbers grew. Having our focus on the proper initiative, we find out what our purpose in life actually is. Jesus. 

The Light of the world.

May peace like a river flow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Lights. Camera. Action!

Like a deer in the headlights. 

Acts 9:1-18

New International Version (NIV)

Saul’s Conversion

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized,

The opening words of Chap 9 let us know that a page is turning, and while we were away focusing on the Apostle Philip and all his wondrous ministry, the same old thing still going on with this religious nut called Saul. Persecution is still going on and Saul the Pharisee is at the heart of the movement. His attention is now turned toward Damascus.

The time frame we are looking at here is A.D. 33-36. Possibly three years have gone by since Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. So much has transpired. Everything has gone exactly as Jesus predicted. The Holy Spirit has come. Persecution is at an all time high. The world would hate the disciples because it first hated Jesus. This man named Saul is on a crusade to rid the world of these people who claim to follow this Messiah. 

We should all be familiar with the words "best laid plans". 
Saul's plans are to walk into Damascus and turn everyone's life upside down. It's funny how when we make plans for ourselves God has a way of interjecting with His plans for our lives. 

Damascus is the second largest city and the capital of Syria. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It is also a major cultural and religious center of a movement known as the Levant. The Levantines (Latin speaking Christians) can date their histories back to Damascus as this center for religious life would stretch across the Middle East from the Mediterranean, with it's islands, all the way to what we would refer to as modern day Libya.  There should be little doubt as to why Paul would choose to go to a place like this to begin his quest. His work thus far has centered mostly around Jerusalem and inside of Israel's borders. This is the first major step we see in the scriptures where he goes outside his countries' borders to confront these early believers. 

The major theological issue to confront in this passage is realizing and knowing who God is on a personal level. There are usually plenty of idiomatic points inside of each one of us that keep us from seeing who is God. What are some of those issues for the religious pharisee Saul? Lets look at Paul's mindset. Acts 9 says he "was still breathing out murderous threats". Who is he speaking this way about? His own people. As much as we want to make a big deal about racism and unrest on a social level the unwavering account is that we have the some of our biggest problem in life with people who are the same ethnicity as ourselves. Here it is Jews vs Jews. It's Saul, a religious and overly zealous Jews vs some other Jews who believe in this new Messiah they proclaim. Right there within their own social and racial structure is where the tension lies. People who believe the same and sound the same yet have differing views is what we as human seem to struggle with the most. Forget, for a moment, that there are people of different skin color or culture or traditional values to deal with in the world. The greatest anxiety for many us to deal with simply comes from having to get up each morning and interact with people who live right across the street from us. 

It is when we are fed up with the world around us that we begin to react like we see Saul doing in this passage. We go way to far in effort to find a way to deal with what we see going on around us. We begin to blame other around us for what we feel inside. We feel confusion. We feel an uneasiness at the thought of having to embrace a culture that shows us something in which we don't agree. We lash out and try to force the world around us to calm down and come under our control. The most recent illustration come right out of the great state of Kentucky. When a person forcefully refuses to simply do their job because they can't get along with other people's viewpoint then we have a problem. It is when we take other people's view so personally that it affects what we do for a living and how we interact with the world. There is lies the deeper issue. We make it about us. Ourselves. Beware of those moment full of issues that allow us to make it about ourselves instead of focusing on God and the welfare of others. Beware of those moments where we use God as an excuse to act the way we act. God is not a crutch we lean on to get what we want the way we want it. Saul is the one breathing murderous threats. And, he thinks he is doing all of this for the glory of God. He thinks he is serving God in the proper manner. He is so blinded by his need to persecute and drive what he doesn't understand that he cannot see that the very person these new believers speak of is exactly what he needs. 

It is in a crisis moment that we find out who is truly God. 

The crisis moment can be defined by our conscious. It can also be defined by the parameters we find ourselves in on a social, economic, and especially, religious situation. Lets look at the word. 

Full Definition of CRISIS

1 a :  the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever
   b :  a paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered function
   c :  an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person's life <a midlife crisis>
2:  the decisive moment (as in a literary plot)
3 a :  an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially :  one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome <a financial crisis>
   b :  a situation that has reached a critical phase <the environmental crisis>
 It is difficult to define the parameters when we are the outside party.
Saul would need to speak up and define it for himself. Later in his letters he reflects and puts his mindset before his readers. Later in Acts 22, Paul would give his own testimony and account of these very events. 

Acts 22:4-5

New International Version (NIV)
I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.

What emotionally significant event would bring about the radical change that would put this in the category of a crisis moment?  Jesus. Our Lord and Savior is the crowning moment of a crisis moment. A moment such as this should cause us to ponder as we read the scriptures in search of understanding and answers. How have we treated those around us? How have we tempered our own convictions with the religious views of others? Have we shown them love and graciousness even when we do not agree with where they stand? Or, have we pushed our own agenda down their throats because we cannot stand the thought of someone else having their own convictions that differ from our own? When we have pushed and prodded until the breaking point arrives then we might find that
we were the ones who needed to have a change of heart. Jesus is the one who breaks through the harsh circumstances, forcing us into a crisis of conscious. 

My favorite movie is The Natural.
Robert Redford plays the part of Roy Hobbs. This young man who grew up in the Midwest came up with a great desire and an equally great ability to play baseball. After going the trials of not making it in baseball, partly due to his own personal choices, he comes back later in life with one more chance to make it in the game he loves. The movie, however, plays out different from the book. In the movie, at the end of the season, while playing for the pennant, Roy is hurting from life long injuries. He still swings for the fences and hits a homerun. The Knights win the pennant. All is right with the world. Roy winds up back on a farm throwing a baseball with his son.

That is not how the book version ends, however.
In the book, Roy and the team make the final game for the pennant against the Phillies. Just as the movie depicts a new, young southpaw is put on the mound to pitch to Roy. The young pitcher reminds one of Roy in his youth. From the mound comes a fastball. Roy swings and strikes out. The Knights lose. No pennant. No glory. The only thing left is to go back to where he was raised. 

In either story, it is what he has in the end that matters.
As Roy lay in the hospital before the pennant game suffering from a wound in his side, he utters the core lines of the movie. "God, I love baseball." Roy was asked what he hoped to accomplish by playing the game. "To be the best there ever was." And then what? "
And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game."

What a crisis moment does for us is it helps us put things in perspective. It helps us decide what is most important. For Roy Hobbs, he finds out that all that really matters is that he is the best in the world in the eyes of his son. For Saul, he'll find out that the rage and the anger that he holds on to so fiercely needs to be let go of in order to find something more precious. Sometimes it takes a bright light in the sky. Sometimes it is that billboard sign traveling down the interstate of life. Sometimes we need to be put flat on our backs, looking up. The famous picture of the Damascus road event gives it all clarity. Saul is on the ground looking up into the light. Later his eyesight would be taken. Later it would be given back. All of this is a sign that God is at work in his life. A sign that would never leave his mind nor his side. A moment he can look back upon with realism.

This event we read about here begs us to look at it with a stark personal revelation.
Do you have a moment like this that you recall? Is there a moment in your life where Jesus became real? A time when the light came on? Is there a place in your history where you can say that Jesus came into your heart and life? We are asked to open the door of our hearts and to let Jesus come in. "Behold I stand at the door and knock. Whoever will open the door I will come in and be with him and he with me?" The light shines so brightly here on the Damascus road that the door is forced open from the other side. Saul's vindictiveness needs to be squashed. What inside of ourselves needs to be squashed? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Have you ever invited him in?

The light is on. The door is open.