Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pretend Faith

Don't be pretending about how you feel. 

 Check out the music video before we jump into the message.

Acts 5:1-10

New International Version (NIV)

Ananias and Sapphira

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.

So, last week we noted what happened when John and Peter came back after being detained following Peter's little speech in front of the crowd at the temple, which included some of the religious leaders who did not find his impassioned words all that incredible.

When they returned what they did was to ask God for help. They did not take matters into their own hands. They prayed and asked for help, for direction, for God to lead them. 

And, God answered. 

The disciples asked for some very specific things in their prayer.
One of those items of asking was for signs and wonders to be performed.
Well, here comes quite a sign. And, everyone would be paying attention for this one. 

The moment centers around a married couple known as Ananias and Sapphira.
His name should sound familiar. There was a high priest later in the book of Acts by the same name who would question Paul and his missionary work at a trial. There is also a disciple in the city of Damascus, just a few chapters ahead, that would pray over the Pharisee named Saul so that he would regain his eyesight. This is a familiar name. Just there are many Johns, and Toms, and Freds in our culture, the amounts of Josephs, Benjamins and Ananiases are equally numerous in Hebrew. 

It seems these two were following the crowd as the popular thing to do was to sell some land and give the money to the apostles so that the new and growing church could meet the needs of those who were poor. The thing to do was to give all the money from the sale of land to the apostles. These two kept a bit of the money back for themselves instead of giving it all. It seems the idea of saying one had faith was to show that they were "all in". Give everything. Leave nothing for one's self. Doing something less than that might look like the person in question is pretending about what they believe in. To say we believe in one thing but to do something contrary to that belief opens the door to scrutiny and judgment. And, that's where our couple find themselves. 

Faith is something we must be absolute about. When we say we believe in something, when we put our heart and soul into a matter, such as salvation, it requires of us an entire and absolute commitment. The apostles prayed and asked for signs and wonders to be done in their midst. They prayed with an unadulterated faith and truly believed that God would do these things. Our scriptural account shows us that God is serious about answering those prayers. 

What troubles many of us about passages like this is properly interpreting the actions of God. Does God truly punish people for their lack of faith, for pretending about what they believe? That is what troubles us. We live in a world where people feel as if they can do whatever they want to do and act however they want to act without truly having to deal with any consequences for their words and actions. Do Ananias and Sapphira really think they are going to get away with this and nobody will know what they have done? That's exactly what they seem to be thinking. That conclusion can be clearly seen in the execution of this act by both of them doing it together. 

Sin is a punishable exploit. When looking at this account in the 5th chapter of Acts I can't help but be drawn back to the first two humans who found themselves in the awkward place of having their sin called out. Adam and Eve wound up neck deep in a sinful position. The temptation began with one which led to an immoral decision. Then the sinful state spread to the other person involved. I wonder with our couple in Acts if it started like that? Did it start with one or did they come up with the notion together? Does it matter? Do we have to understand the inner working of how we got to the awful place we have wound up in our sinful state? One of the questions we face when interpreting scripture is why we don't have information to go on. Why don't we get all the data? Why don't we have all the facts? In response I would ask, do we need all the particulars? Look at what wanting all the knowledge and information did to the first two humans who were sucked into that temptation. It didn't end well. Ananias and Sapphira are sucked into a different kind of sin. The sin of thinking they could keep knowledge from others. That much they do have in common with Adam & Eve. 

Genesis 3:8

New International Version (NIV)
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

The mistake we make in our pretending is that we think we can hide things. Putting on a face around others that tries to show that everything is ok is a fallacy that is melted down in the face of truth. We cannot hide.  God comes and we have no place to conceal ourselves. We think we can.We think we have the means to bury away our trouble. Maybe it's with a sly smile or meager attempt at showing civility. When I worked third shift at an IGA grocery store in my hometown a loooooong time ago there was guy named Mike. Mike was a rough sounding fella with a shaved head who played guitar in a heavy metal band. He had been raised Baptist but very loosely kept that affiliation. With Mike, there was no hiding anything, or so he let on. I could tel he was covering up stuff. There was a softer side to him if you caught him in the right moment. There was a special item of discussion that Mike would bring up from time to time. He hated falseness. He hated that pretend smile or that counterfeit niceness he noted in a person's voice. He would talk about that older ladies at church who, when asked how they were doing, would say "Oh fine, just fine." He would note their lack of sincerity. They didn't really sound "fine". They sounded like they were putting you on. In response to an inquiry they might say "Oh that's nice. It's that nice?" As we would talk, Mike would call them out for their disingenuous nature. He would say, "If your sad, just say your sad. Be honest. Don't put on some fake face and fake smile. Just be honest about how you feel." His words stick with me to this day. There's nothing more freeing than an honest disclosure one's self.

There are numerous other troubling questions to face. If God punishes those who do wrong, how come the punishment is not the same across the board? Why were Adam and Eve spared? Why didn't God just dump them and start over again? Why did Ananias and Sapphira die here? Why didn't he spare them? I don't have all the information. And, maybe I don't need it. Maybe I don't need all my questions answered. It's not up to me to judge here. That's God job. It might be better if we leave it that way. 

The truth of the matter is that we need to be as honest as we possibly can.
Billy Joel's words ring hard to me here. 

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pray & Share

into   ACTS

Because there's no other way. 

Acts 4:23-37

New International Version (NIV)

The Believers Pray

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.[a][b]
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

The Believers Share Their Possessions

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Well, it's Father's Day. SO, I have to find a way to tie that in here. Stay with me. 

Some of this might seem like a reiteration from two weeks ago.
We touch on the end of Chap 2 in Acts and then a passage from Chap 3.
We read about the believers sharing their possessions for the good of the community. They were all of one heart and mind together. Then we saw where Peter spoke boldly to the crowd at the Temple after healing a man by the gate called Beautiful. 

This seems very similar. Only last week we noted that the religious leaders get involved.
And, they are not happy. 

John and Peter are held for a short time, but no one can seem to come up with an appropriate means to punish them, so they are released. Upon being released they head back home with a report on all they have experienced. 

Were you ever in one of those "my daddy is stronger than your daddy" arguments when you were growing up? Seems I overheard my boy pulling one of those items out for discussion around the dinner table. He said that he had been talking it up with one of his friends in preschool. Why do we do that as children? Why is there some need to tell everybody else that our daddy is better than their daddy? And, do we ever outgrow that notion? Well, I would suffice to say that the argument just changes shape and shifts. Below the surface of that disagreement is the simple need to be right about something. As children, it starts with arguing about whose father is bigger or stronger or smarter. In high school, it becomes about who has the faster car and what engine is better under the hood. As young men, it becomes about whose sports team is better. And, as we become more enlightened spiritually, the argument can certainly turn to whose theology and philosophy is best understood. 

Peter and John find themselves in the midst of just such a place.
In places like this it is very easy to take on the same vindictive behavior we see the people across from us displaying. Here's what makes the moment easier to handle - accepting that this is how things will be. Jesus said that there would be days like this. People who don't agree with us. People who don't like what we have to present to them. People who don't like the words that Jesus Christ says to us. It's going to happen. Avoiding it is impossible. Since we can't do anything about it the real question should come to us. What can we do about it? 

You might recall the old Chuck Swindoll analogy. (At least, that where I heard it for the first time.)
"Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." How did the disciples react to the hardship they came through? Rewind just a month back and you see a completely different mindset. They all run. They scatter. They hide and wait hoping the same travesty that befell their Savior won't come upon them. 

Now where are they? In their souls, where are they in their current situation? They come home. They share what happened. And, then they pray. They don't run and hide. They stand and share. They go through the fire, however brief it might be, and they come out with the resolve to do exactly what their Lord and Savior told them they should do.

What the book of Acts provides us with is an in-depth look at what it means to live out exactly what Jesus said his followers would need to be in order for the Kingdom to take hold and grow. It's rather simplistic. Jesus spoke in the Gospels what his people needed to look like.

Matthew 5

New International Version (NIV)

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Holy Spirit comes and makes the impossible real. Read through the Sermon on the Mount. Then move to Acts and see what starts happening with the apostles and the people they interact with as the message begins to spread. Jesus made bold statements about what it meant to live a believer in the Messiah.

Matthew 5:43-48

New International Version (NIV)

Love for Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So, what do the believers start doing after John & Peter are detained?
Exactly what they should do. They start to pray for those who had a problem with their message.
But, it's what they say that makes the difference. They could have prayed about their enemies and ask that God deal with them harshly. Lord knows many of us have wanted exactly that when we have dealt with people who have treated us harshly. Now, these believers pray for some very specific things. They want to speak with boldness. They want the people who hear their words to actually know that the speakers mean what they say. They want God to perform signs and wonder through them. They want the miracles that they saw while walking with Jesus to be done while they are doing what God has called them to do. 

But, maybe the most important idea is instilled in this simple request. 
They want to heal. "Stretch out your hand to heal..." People all around them need healing. They have already met with a man who could not walk and they restored his legs. Physical healing is a must. But, how far and wide does the need for healing go? In order for people to understand what the message of Jesus is all about maybe there needs to be healing on an intellectual and philosophical level. Maybe that's why people, like these religious leaders, can't understand what it is that Jesus came to do. What will it take for us to communicate the message of Christ to our world? What kind of healing does our world need in order to comprehend their need for salvation in Jesus? 

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
They prayed and got exactly what they ask for.
The idea of everyone being on the same page still holds too.
Jesus had prayed that they would all be of one mind. One truth. One heart.
And, they seem to be just that. People are sharing their possessions. People are selling what they have and bringing it to the apostles so that others might have enough to live on. This is the heart of Christianity. This is the heart of Methodism. Meeting peoples needs as their most desperate level. Giving up what we have in order to make sure that the needs of others come first. 

I recall that old phrase my dad used to say. That thing about priorities.
"You got your priorities all screwed up. When you should be thinking about others, you're thinking about yourself. And, when you should be thinking about yourself, you're think about others." I can't help but ponder if this is what he was talking about. How often do we get our priorities out of alignment? 

It seems that after the Holy Spirit came, these believers get those priorities in the right order. 
They don't seem afraid anymore. They speak boldly. They want boldness and they receive it. 
They were told that they would do greater things than they saw their Messiah doing. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Jesus fed five thousand on a hillside. They saved 3000 in a day. Jesus healed a lame people who could not walk numerous times. They have healed their first. And, there will be many more to come. The hungry will be fed. Physically and spiritually. And, people will give all they have to make sure it gets done. 

They are now trusting and obeying. They don't see any other way to do it.
There truly is no other way to be happy. Praying and sharing. Just like they were taught to do.

Friday, June 5, 2015

It's All Coming Together

into    ACTS

Commencing countdown...

Acts 2:42-47

New International Version (NIV)

The Fellowship of the Believers

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 3:11-26

New International Version (NIV)

Peter Speaks to the Onlookers

11 While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
17 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21 Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. 22 For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. 23 Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.’[a]
24 “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days. 25 And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’[b] 26 When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

 New Beginnings. They are truly beautiful. 

The event of Pentecost is just such a moment.
 It's all brand new. A shining moment in the history of a persecuted and troubled faith. 
3000 people came into the Christian family that day. Immediately people feel the desire to start using what they have to serve the Lord and others. 4 things become important right away. 

The Apostle teachings.
The breaking of bread. 


At the beginning of anything, a movement, a relationship, a new job, a new home; everything seems peachy. "All the believers were together and had everything in common." Wow. This truly is "the beginning". In the beginning of a brand new relationship that's how things feel. Peachy. When my wife and I first got together it was that way. I hadn't reconnect with my love for college football yet. (I wasn't a fan during those years with John Cooper at the helm of the Buckeyes.) She joined up with me thinking I had no passion for sports. She was not and has never been a real fan of sports. She felt as if we had that in common. Then, Jim Tressell came to coach the Buckeyes and my world was changed. In 2002, he led our Buckeyes to a amazing double overtime win in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship. But, so was my wife's world. This piece of us that she thought we were on the same page about... It was not so. That's how relationships go. People do change. People have differing viewpoints. Viewpoints can change over time. Right now, the believers are all on the same page. As we turn these pages, we'll find out that they are not. But, for now, enjoy the moment.

I should say something here about fundamentalism. If you're not familiar with the term, you should understand that there are Christian who believe we should go back to the basics of Christianity and read the New Testament, trying to do everything just exactly as the early Christians we read here would have done. It's as if people think we should turn back time and live Acts chap 2 exactly as it is written in order to be the Christians that God wants us to be. There is real danger in interpreting the scriptures in this fundamental way. It creates a warped view of context. Many non-denominational churches that get started are built with this simplistic view of going back to the basics of belief only to eventually find that the complexity of what other people believe comes to the forefront and will have to be dealt with on a personal level. In the beginning it might seem as if everyone is on the same page, believing the same things, sharing the same commonality. Then people begin to express themselves and their personalities begin to shine. Then diversity begins to evolve and it's a shock to the system of a fundamentalist. That kind of viewpoint breeds legalism that will divide groups of people over the idea that just because these early believers did it this or that way means we have to absolutely do it this or that way also. Beware the legalism of fundamentalism.

It also suggests here that they believers all sold their possessions and threw everything they had into a community pile. They gave to anyone in need. Wow. Could you do that? The disciples had to leave everything they had and follow Jesus when he called them to come. Now, these early believers at the start of the church have done a similar thing. They give up what they have. They don't seem to be on a trek around the country like the twelve had been doing. But, they feel the need to vacate items that they would call their own and give to those who have little or nothing. This is true fellowship. It does not involve simply sitting down together and coexisting for a hour or so while we eat and drink refreshments. It's actually listening to the needs and cares of others and then being available to meet those needs. It seems the most pertinent way to meet those needs is to give up what we have in our own own hands. 

It also has to do with meeting together regularly. Church life in modern America is feeling that sharp edge of being booted from the mainstream of social regularity by outside interests. Sports has become a big deal on Sundays. I'm truly glad people can find fellowship. It's just not spiritual fellowship. Certainly, there is like-mindedness. Is God a part of it? There is central part of our lives that needs to be filled with a gift only God can give. We find that when we meet together as a church, as a spiritual body. The job front is another distraction. People are being required to work on the weekend more and more. A case can be made that Sunday is not truly the Sabbath day. We could argue that Saturday is actually the last day of the week. In doing so, we allow ourselves to be pulled into a world where we don't truly define for ourselves a day of rest a all. SO, we work. And, we work. AND, we work.

 While I was pastor at my first church outside of Marion, OH I would travel up to Galion for a job at a discount store. However, that job almost was not to be. As I sat in that interview, the boss made it clear that there would be some hours needed on Sunday. They really wanted me on this job. For one, I had been at this store about three years prior. I had a background in grocery & retail. I could stock and keep records pretty good. The boss wanted me there. But, I could not accompany those Sunday items about the job. I explained I was behind a pulpit and the church had services morning & evening on Sunday. As we seemed to reach a stalemate, I smiled and began to get up from my chair. The boss just looked at. "Sit down", she said, and we worked it out. "Work me to death, Monday through Saturday, all you want.", I said, "But, Sunday I have to be in church." And, that's what we did. Standing up for what we believe and making God the priority can only bring about blessing in our life. That was not the first job where I had stood up for my faith and my Sunday mornings. I had done it on previous jobs as well. Sunday for church has always been important. My job at the Flying J gas depot only lasted three weeks back in 2001 because I didn't show up on Sunday. I told them when they hired me. But, they went ahead and put me on the schedule any way. I just didn't show up. Team leader met me one day when I came to work and notified I was done. Too bad for them. I was willing to work hard. But, Sundays during church time were off limits. My faith and my desire to be in church meant more than making a buck. 

They broke bread together. We are having communion this morning, also.
There's nothing like this tradition in any religion on the planet. No other religious leader for any major religion gave their life in such a way and then left a ritual behind that commemorates the moment is such a tremendous display of grace and humility. We don't have a word here on the frequency of their habit. Just that they did it often. "
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts..." The early believers tradition was to have a feast. Maybe, it was similar to a potluck meal. (Methodists, rejoice!) When Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room, it was for a meal or a feast. The items that we use for our communion are meant to be symbols of what they would have used or done in their meal. Our bread is most likely not the same. They probably had real wine. These items were taken in during the course of eating the meal. That started by breaking bread. They finished by drinking from the cup. They did it to remember him; the One who gave his life for the sins of the world. This is what they were taught by the apostles to believe and to practice. A tradition we still carry to this day. 

Last week we covered the passage at the beginning of Chap 3 where John and Peter were coming into the temple for prayer. They healed a man by the gate called Beautiful. Then comes a speech that Peter will give instructing all as what they should believe about Christ. The first thing he says is to assure the crowd that none of what they have seen is because of themselves. Let our opening statements about Christ center around the One who deserves the attention. Peter speaks about faith in the name of Jesus. He minces no words about believing in Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. Repentance is key to follow this teaching. We must turn away from our sin and not allow it to tell us what to do. What must turn to Christ and put our faith in him. Only then will we experience the forgiveness and refreshment for our souls that has been promised. This is why God sent his Messiah, his One and Only Son. Everybody seems to be on board with this message. There are no nay-sayers in the crowd. No hecklers. No rebel-rousers. The listen and seem to follow the teaching that is given to them. 

It's all coming together.
Jesus had to die. He rose from the grave.They witnessed him go back to heaven. 
The Holy Spirit has come. The Spirit has filled the disciples and given them power from on high.
People are being healed. Messages are being preached. People are listening and coming to God. 

New beginnings are awesome. 

Enjoy it while it lasts.