Friday, September 28, 2012

Now AND Later

Acts 19:21-41
"Now after these things had been accomplished..." (Acts 19:21a); this half verse serves as a transition into our reading from Acts today, and though it seems insignificant there is something to be learned even here. In many ways, we as Christians are focused on the reign of God coming in its fullness. Nonetheless, we cannot allow ourselves to lose track of the here and now. Days pass, things happen; babies are born, other lives come to an end. There are concrete needs to be met and real opportunities for service. In other words, things get accomplished and the story that is God's involvement in the world moves on.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we cannot gaze into the distant future alone. We must also be very aware of what is happening around us and how we as believers are called to respond. One way this plays out, I believe, is in our consideration of one another. The coming reign of God, while already present in part (see Luke 4), may give us the impression of distance and abstraction. We may see elements of life in artificial terms and make claims that are overly presumptuous. It is far easier to point the finger at others and not accept our own sinfulness if God's presence lies somewhere far away. But the more we reflect on the day to day nature of the faith, the more we recognize accomplished events leading one to another, the less room we have for separating ourselves out. "I and you" statements must now be rephrased to recognize the "us" dynamic of shared life. Name calling becomes an empty exercise seen in the light of the very real presence of God.

So God's people are invited to share today as well as tomorrow, to live from event to event while living in expectant hope for what God will do in the fullness of time.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to see you at work in the shared lives of the world and to take up the work of your coming reign. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who Are You?

Acts 19:11-20
According to the book of Acts, God was at work though Paul in powerful ways. Many were healed in the name of Jesus Christ and many more came to hear of these miracles. So profound was the effect upon the city of Ephesus that even some non-believers set out to heal in the name of Jesus. In one notable case seven brothers confronted a man possessed by a demon. But as Acts tells us, “the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’” (Acts 19:15). Then the one in whom the spirit resided overcame all of the brothers who fled the house “naked and wounded” (v.16). Clearly, it wasn’t enough to toss around the name of Jesus like a magic charm. It wasn’t enough to follow certain protocols, certain rituals, certain formulas. Even an evil spirit could tell the difference between those who were committed to Jesus Christ and those who were not. The seven brothers were left naked, Acts tells us, which I think symbolizes the fact that their deceit had been uncovered. They were frauds, and now the whole community could see it.

This story deserves our attention. If we are to truly change the world, if we are to confront evil and overpower injustice, if we are to speak truth to the powers, we must do so, not simply in the name of Jesus Christ, but as those who believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, Lord and Savior, God with us. We must work for God and not expect God to somehow work for us. We must set aside empty ritual and accept the fact that faith is hard work. If we do these things we will be amazed by what God is doing. Otherwise, we may find ourselves revealed for who we are: nothing more than divine name-droppers.

Prayer: Lord, give us faith by which to serve you, that in all things your will may be done. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What You Don’t Know That You Don’t Know

Acts 19:1-10
It was in Ephesus that the Apostle Paul encountered some disciples whose knowledge of the faith was limited. “(Paul) said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 19:2). According to Acts, Paul quickly shared the gospel with them, and when they were baptized in the name of Jesus “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied - altogether there were about twelve of them” (v. 6b-7).

It seems significant that the number of these “disciples” was twelve. That of course is the number of the original disciples called by Jesus. It is also the number of the tribes of Israel. The number twelve also shows up in accounts of the feeding of the five thousand as the number of baskets needed to collect the leftovers (Matthew 14:20, and John 6:13). This is a fairly common number associated with the Christian faith, and not to oversimplify the point, but when the author of Acts tells us there were “about twelve” of these disciples it would seem to indicate that they, as a group, are representative of the gospel enterprise as a whole, all those who have been called, set aside, and tended to by God through Jesus Christ. In other words they represent you and me as people of faith. If this group of twelve had more to learn about what they believed (in their case, the existence of the Holy Spirit), then it appears that all of us have more to learn.

What is it that we need to know? Sometimes the only way to answer that question is to pay attention. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “It’s amazing what you know that you didn’t know you knew.” The reverse of that would also be valid: it’s amazing what we don’t know that we don’t know. The best way to deal with this lack of knowledge is to study, and to ponder, and to pray, and to share, and to consider, and to ask, and to compare notes, and to attend church and Sunday school, and to read, and to reflect, and to do all sorts of other things in order to learn what it is we didn’t know we didn’t know. Then we, like the twelve disciples of Acts 19, may live more fully for God because we, like them, will have more of the tools we need to do the work of God’s reign.

Prayer: God, help us to open our hearts and minds to your word, humbly receiving its truth for our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Minor Point…Maybe

Acts 18:12-28
According to our reading from Acts today, Apollos had become a powerful evangelist for the Christian faith as he demonstrated “by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28b). What strikes me here is that according to Acts, Apollos did not try to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, but rather “that the Messiah is Jesus.” Perhaps this is only a minor point, a choice of syntax or a style of grammar. Or maybe it means something more significant.

As Christians know, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1). The Nicene Creed, finalized about 381 AD, professes faith in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made…” The question, for Christians anyway, is never Who is Jesus? Jesus existed with God from before anything else, indeed was a part of the creative process behind all being, and not a product of the creation. Based on these facts, to say “Jesus is the Messiah” limits Jesus within a cultural framework, a small fragment of the universe that he as the word of God helped to create. The question is Who is the Messiah? and the answer is “The Messiah is Jesus.” This way we have not limited Jesus within a cultural perspective, but instead we have greatly enlarged our understanding of the Messiah, pushing the image beyond a particular religion and a particular nation out to the furthest reaches of the universe, all the way to the very throne of God.

So it isn’t a question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, the fact is that the role of Messiah takes its true shape within the reality of Jesus.

Prayer: Gracious God, lead us in our lives of faith through your Son Jesus Christ to whom we give glory and honor. Amen. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Loud Faith

Psalm 47
The most noise that I ever remember experiencing came at a concert years ago in San Antonio. One of my favorite bands played in a small theater there, and as I recall my ears were still ringing well into the next afternoon. It occurs to me that though it was written long before sophisticated sound equipment was invented, Psalm 47, one of our evening psalms for today, might also have been intended to make our ears ring well into the next day. It is certainly a noisy psalm.

“Clap your hands, all you people; shout to God with loud songs of joy… God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises… (S)ing praises with a psalm” (Psalm 47:1, 5-6). Clapping, shouting, trumpets blowing, and above all, songs of praise: these are the actions with which this psalm reverberates because these are the sorts of thngs that people do when, with joy, they recognize the glorious presence of God in their lives.

When God shows up we become changed people, and when we have known God to be at work in our lives we are never the same again; truth and justice and righteousness spring forth, and the hungry are fed, and the sick are healed, and the lonely are visited, and the hopeless are given hope, and those who dwell in deep darkness have a great light break across their horizons. Maybe this is why the psalmist is so loud in Psalm 47, because great things are going on, and because the people of God need to get up and experience the animating effect of the Holy Spirit. Then we too may experience the joy that comes from knowing God is with us.

Prayer: Almighty God, fill our hearts with the joy of knowing you, and our lives with shouts of praise to your glorious name. Amen. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Whose Glory?

John 12:36b-43
Why did some of the leaders of the people refrain from opening confessing their faith in Jesus? According to John’s gospel it was because “…they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). This is a sad commentary but it is one that deserves careful consideration in our daily living, for we, too, run the risk of being swayed by our own need for approval or even praise. I think of dogs in particular who can be trained to act in certain ways with the use of praise. Human beings are a ways up the ladder from dogs, of course, but we sometimes find ourselves responding to the same forms of motivation.

God offers a form of glory that is not easy to appreciate in purely human terms. For one thing it calls for patience and hope because God’s glory does not come in the form of instant gratification. For another thing God’s glory is impossible for us to manipulate. By saying certain things or excelling in certain activities, humans can attract significant adulation. God cannot be swayed and certainly cannot be fooled by what we do or who we say we are.

Given the choice between human glory and the glory that comes from God, many will be led astray and choose what they can see and feel in the present life while disregarding the promises of the life of come. Even those who come to recognize the truth in Jesus may fall away when faced with the challenges of discipleship as opposed to what the world offers as normative. The choice is there to be made. Whose glory do we choose?

Prayer: Lord, guide us in our living that we may serve you and seek the glory you offer instead of falling prey to our own egos and our own sinfulness

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Question + Answer = Direction

Job 28:1-28
Our reading from Job today asks a question and then, a few verses later, answers it. "Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?…  Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding" (Job 28:20, 28). That’s about as straight forward as scripture gets. No parable, no allegory, no prophetic vision, no dreams in need of interpretation, just a question and an answer. Don’t we wish it was that easy all the time?

And yet, is this really an “easy” situation? Is it really “easy” to fear the Lord when the world offers us so many other options, so many gods and idols clamoring for our attention? And is it really all that “easy” to turn away from our sinful inclinations? No, these are not “easy” things to do; they require constant effort on our part and an unwavering devotion to God’s will. What we do find, however, is a road map, a source of direction by which to travel so that we know what is expected of us. And we know that God is engaged in the effort with us, for we have Jesus Christ as Lord and the gift of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

The question and the answer are there and while they do not make life simple, they do provide us with a direction to travel, a guiding star if you will. God has not left us to flounder, God is giving us what we need.

Prayer: Lord, continue to guide us and to direct us in our living that we may serve you all the days of our lives and that we may have peace and reconciliation with our neighbors

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

To Live and Die With Jesus

John 12:9-19
There is an interesting point made in our reading from John gospel today concerning Lazarus. We have not traveled far in the story since Jesus brought his friend back to life, calling him out of the tomb. Now we read, "When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus" (John 12:9-11). These few verses serve to remind us that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to embrace life, but it is also to risk death. Jesus had raised Lazarus, now because of that very relationship there were others who wished to kill the brother of Mary and Martha.

Jesus, who offers eternal life, makes clear that following him also means taking up the cross, denying oneself, looking beyond the present and toward the time to come. Lazarus embodies this dichotomy and in John’s passage in particular he stands as a physical reminder of what Jesus is saying. Life in this world is transitory; death remains a constant feature. And while a relationship with the Son of God is eternal and everlasting it comes at a cost, the willingness to let go of our own desires and to trust the plan that God is bringing to fruition.

Lazarus had become a target because of his relationship with Jesus. Where do we stand? Are we happy to be healed and comforted by the Lord while shunning the weightier expectations of the gospel? Or are we willing to walk with Jesus despite the cost? At this point in John, Lazarus seems to have made a decision. I wonder if we would do the same?

Prayer: Lord, help us to follow you throughout our lives and to live according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Church Fights Are Nothing New

Acts 15:36-16:5
“The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company…” (Acts 15:39). That’s the way that Acts describes the falling out between Paul and his fellow evangelist Barnabas. Indeed, because of their inability to agree the two former partners headed off in entirely separate directions. This passage may sound all too familiar to our modern ears. Just about every week I hear reports of individual Christians or entire congregations “parting company” over “sharp disagreements.” Such news should sadden us all. Unity is one of the most powerful resources that God’s people can bring to bear in the world today and when that unity is threatened it diminishes all of us. Fingers are pointed and blame is assigned at the precise moment when hands should be offered in peace and forgiveness sought in humility.

But let’s not miss the bigger picture contained in Acts. Yes, Paul and Barnabas disagreed so strongly that they ceased to work together. But it did not keep either one of them from working, from doing the Lord’s will as each man understood it. At the end of the day it was, as it had always been, God’s church, the body of Christ as work in the world. And it appears that God chose to work through both Paul and Barnabas to convey the good news of the gospel. The two men may have differed with each other, but it was by no means a hindrance to God’s will.

Disagreements rise and fall, but God alone remains Sovereign over human history. Does parting company serve a purpose? I believe it can. There are times when the best thing to do is to simply step away from a situation. But that says more about us than it ever will about God. God is perfectly capable of working through the “other guy” as much as through us.

Imagine that!

Prayer: O God, forgive us when our inability to work together causes us to part ways but help us to understand that your will is done despite our own perspectives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.