I Can See Clearly Now

I Can See Clearly Now

To me, chapter 30 seems to be about competing visions of and for the future. Paul has a vision of one world united in the kingdom of God under Christ. The religious establishment has a vision of the chaos and turmoil that would undoubtably be the “birth pangs” of such a transformation. When we read Acts today, it is very easy to judge those who sought to stop Paul and the rest of the early church, but I think that’s being unfair to them. We may disagree with their METHODS, but, generally, I think their MOTIVATION was to preserve what they thought of as the purity of the people of God.

I think it’s not so much that those who opposed Paul had no vision. Rather, their vision of the future was myopic. They could see in the near term that Paul was advocating a major upheaval of the social order of they day.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)

It’s hard to think of a more disruptive statement than this in the well ordered society Paul was speaking to! Is it any wonder that the religious leaders of the day, charged with a sacred trust to preserve the purity of the Jewish people, would see Paul and his message as something to be stopped at any cost?

But those who opposed Paul weren’t the only ones who suffered from near sightedness. We see it also within the church. When Paul is preparing to go to Jerusalem, he receives word of a prophetic vision, showing that Paul would be bound if he continued. So the fellow believers urged Paul to change his plans. But Paul would have none of it. He had a different vision. It’s important to note that Paul did not deny the validity of Agabus’ vision. Quite the contrary — he accepted is as valid. It’s just that he saw beyond that limited vision, to the greater plan that lay ahead.

So, what does all of this mean for us? Are we open to seeing where God may be doing a new thing in the world, even if it disrupts and destroys things we’ve held dear, even sacred? And how do we know when that “new thing” really IS of God?

Worldly Ways

Worldly Ways

Whenever I read the writings of Paul, I’m always struck by the tensions present. Between The Law and Grace. Between everyone keeping their proper place, and disrupting the social order of slave vs free, man vs woman, Greek vs Roman vs Jew. In the world, but not of the world. It was the last that struck me particularly this week. In First Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul writes:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?

Paul is faulting the Corinthians for their worldliness, calling it a sign of spiritual immaturity. Later, In 1 Corinthians 5:1, he states

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people

That all sounds like familiar Pauline stuff. But immediately after that lines comes 1 Corinthians 5:2

not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.

I don’t remember ever seeing that second half of the admonition before. Paul is telling the church to hold themselves to a high standard, but, at the same time, telling them that they are not to separate themselves from the rest of the world. And, if the point wasn’t clear enough, Paul goes on in verse 12:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

The words of Paul have been used by the church over and over again to judge. To point out the failings of others. Yet Paul himself is clearly saying that this isn’t the right way to go about things. Paul was all about reaching the whole world with the Gospel. Maybe we, as the church, need to listen more to that message. Not to get caught up in the minutia of specific instructions to specific people and churches, but to focus on spreading that Good News to the world.

Hear No Evil

Hear No Evil

Stephen is credited with being one of the first deacons of the early church. So much so that there is an organization called “Stephen Ministries” that takes as its mission to equip people to “provide one-to-one, Christ-centered care to hurting people.” (from their web site). But, even though Stephen did vital work for the early church living his life as a deacon, it is his death that we know the most about from the book of Acts.

As I read the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, the image that kept coming to me was that of our modern political environment. We had parties with their own “pet agendas” (the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”) We have people lying under oath to get what they want, or to curry favor. But the most telling point, I thought, was the response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen’s vision.

But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.  (Acts 7:57 NRSV)

The religious leaders were so unwilling to hear what Stephen had to say, they were raising their own voices, and covering their ears, to block out the sound. Something that seems all to familiar in today’s political “discourse.”

It’s not included in “The Story,” but, just prior to this, Stephen had spent a great deal of time “recapping” the history of the Jewish people (Acts chapter 7) with emphasis on the stubbornness of the Jewish people, and showing how the current generation was following in that less than glorious tradition. So they reacted the way we so often do – the attacked (and killed) the messenger, just so they wouldn’t have to hear the message.

One of the false charges leveled against Stephen was that he would “change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Not the laws of God. The customs of Moses. Those in power were so wedded to their traditions that they would rather kill than change them. They were unable to see that God was doing a completely new thing. I think that their example can stand as an object lesson for us today. Do we get so caught up in the traditions of church that we lose sight of why we are the church?

Now, to be completely fair to the Sanhedrin, it was their job to preserve the purity of the faith, making sure that the people followed God’s will as well as they could. I don’t think they thought of what they were doing as evil, but rather completely justified. It certainly wouldn’t do to just flit after every fad that came along. After all, we learned earlier in the chapter about several failed attempts at change. As Gamaliel said,

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34-39 NRSV)

Gamaliel knew that not every new thing that came along was a good thing, but he was open to new possibilities. Not so the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s case. They had their ears (and minds) closed to the possibility of something new. A danger that is just as real today as it was 2000 years ago.

This Is Your Life, Simon Peter

This Is Your Life, Simon Peter

Part of the practice of studying “The Story” at APC involves our Sunday morning education hour. All ages participate in age-appropriate classes from that week’s chapter. But before breaking up into individual classes, there is a large group time, where all of the ages meet together for a short presentation to introduce that week’s material. That introduction is prepared by different people and groups each week. This week, for Chapter 28, “New Beginnings,” I was tasked with preparing that introduction. Wendy suggested that others might find it a useful starting point for a similar effort in their church. So, I present to you my script.

This is a take-off on the old “This Is Your Life” TV show, with Peter being the surprised guest honoree. Several characters from this week’s story come out to help Peter remember the events of the early church.

I hope you find it useful. I wrote this over the course of just a few hours, so I have no doubt that there is a lot of room for improvement.

This Is Your Life script

Stop and a Smell the Roses

Stop and a Smell the Roses

For such a short chapter, there are a lot of familiar stories this week. That’s good in the sense that we’re all on familiar ground, but it makes it difficult to come up with something to write about that isn’t just a rehash of what’s been said over and over again. I’ve been told that many pastors dislike writing Easter Sunday sermons for that very reason. Though, they also have to deal with the “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians, who don’t have any of the “back story” behind those events. Hopefully that’s not a problem for those who have been reading “The Story” along with us.

I’m going to focus on the “walk to Emmaus” story. Like the others, it’s familiar to many of us. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking about everything that’s happened, when they are joined by an incognito Jesus. After they belittle him for not knowing what they’re talking about, they provide a quick recap. Jesus then goes into “rabbi mode,” explaining scripture to them. And they still don’t recognize him. But at least they recognize his wisdom as a teacher, so they ask him to stay with them. Then, finally, when they’ve stopped to share a meal, Jesus breaks bread and they recognize him at last.

The most common question on this passage, I think, is why? Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? The text simply says “… they were kept from recognizing him.” So what was it? Was Jesus wearing a disguise? Was he actively trying to deceive them? I don’t think so. I think it was they themselves who stood in the way of seeing Jesus for who he was.

When Jesus first appeared to them, they were deep in their own thoughts. They had heard the reports of others who saw the empty tomb, but they were just trying to make sense of it all. They were so caught up in their own world that, when Jesus approached them, they actually mocked him! “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” I can hear the condescension in their voices as they explain it to him. At which point, Jesus takes them to task, explaining scripture to them yet again.

To the disciples credit, they at least begin to realize that there’s something special about this guy they met on the road. They still don’t know who he is, but at least they want to spend more time with him. Perhaps they were looking for a new rabbi to follow. In any case, they urge Jesus to stay with them. And it’s there, finally, when he blesses and breaks the bread, that they see him for who he is.

I see the disciples in this story as being on a journey, and not just the physical walk. They are on a journey of faith. They start out on their own, confused and isolated. They don’t know who this Jesus guy really is. As they move along their road, they study scripture. They learn more about Jesus, but they still don’t know Jesus. Finally, they reach the third stage, where they stop. Stop trying to make it all make sense. Stop thinking so much about it, and just be with Jesus. Then they know him.

Thanks to the encouragement of my son-in-law, I’ve taken up running. Though, in my case, the pace isn’t must faster than a walk. But there are advantages to my slower pace. I run on roads that I drive over all the time. But you see things at that slower speed that simply are not visible as you race by in a car. Little details that don’t even exist at higher speeds suddenly take on more significance. I think that’s what’s happening for the disciples. Once they stopped focusing on where they were going to go, and what they were going to do, they could really see Jesus.

We are all, as Christians, at various points along that journey. Sometimes we’re confused and questioning. Sometimes we’re studying. And sometimes, rarely, we can just stop, and know Jesus. And I think that all of those stages have value. We need that time of study, to make sure that the stops are with the right person! But we also, I think, need those times of confusion and questioning, to lead us to newer, deeper insights.

There is one stage of the disciple’s journey that I didn’t talk about. And that’s what happened after they recognized Jesus. They didn’t stay where they were. It wasn’t a permanent stop. They moved on, to join with the others. To continue their journey of faith.

One last thing. This has very little to do with the chapter, but thinking about stopping got me thinking about a song that was popular when I was a teen. “Stop And Smell the Roses” by Mac Davis. It’s where I got the title for this post. Enjoy.

Shaping the Rock

Shaping the Rock

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Matthew 16:18

This quote doesn’t come from this chapter, of course, but I think it really comes into its own here. Peter is a character of absolutes, like stone. Early in the chapter, Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet, I suppose horrified by the idea of the master stooping so low. He isn’t just upset. He refuses, saying that Jesus will NEVER wash HIS feet. That is, until Jesus tells Peter that it is required to have a part with him. Then, Peter wants the full body experience! With Peter, it’s all or nothing.

Fast forward a bit, and we hear Jesus telling the disciples that they will all fall away in his time of trial. And, of course, up jump Peter to deny this. Even if it means his death, Peter says, he will never abandon Jesus. Sure and solid as a rock, like always. So Jesus sets the stage for what is to come, saying that Peter will deny him three time before the rooster crows.

I don’t doubt that those words of Jesus were on Peter’s mind when Judas and the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus. So Peter reacted with quick action, cutting off Mulchus’ ear. Peter was going to prove to Jesus that he was his rock! Unfortunately for Peter, that wasn’t the end.

Finally, we come to the encounter outside the house of the high priest. Peter isn’t threatened with swords. Peter the rock knows how to break swords. He was threatened with words – not his strong suit, to be sure. And so he denies Jesus three times before the rooster crows. And this is the critical point for Peter, the rock. Jesus looks at him. Pierces him with his glance, at the moment of betrayal.

I think that the “traditional” interpretation of this is that Jesus is expressing sorrow at Peter’s betrayal, as well as compassion for him. Certainly Peter felt that sorrow, running off to weep “bitterly.” But I think it goes beyond that.

I think Jesus was preparing Peter for his role as the rock, the foundation, of the church.

Up to this point, Peter had been the rough, hard, shapeless block (or perhaps blockHEAD) of stone. But to be useful, Peter needed to be shaped. He needed to have the excess bits chipped away. The weaknesses and flaws exposed, so that he could bear the weight that was expected of him. Like a stone mason using a hammer and chisel, Jesus’ simple glance had applied just the right pressure at just the right point. Jesus had broken Peter open, leaving him stronger to face the future.

What Is Dead May Never Die

What Is Dead May Never Die

Jesus makes a remarkable claim this week:

Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.

When Jesus said that, the religious leaders around him were stunned. They said that he must be demon possessed. After all, even Abraham died, and Abraham was revered almost as much as God. How could Jesus make such an extraordinary claim? His audience couldn’t accept it.

Can we?

What do we do with this statement? Does the fact that we all die mean that we’re not obeying Jesus’ word? What about the disciples? They all died. Did they not obey Jesus?

Wendy and I have become hooked recently on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Religion plays a big part in this fantasy series. There are several different faiths represented: the “old gods” (a nature religion); “the seven;” the “drowned god;” and many others. The picture above is what is essentially a “baptism” into the faith of the drowned god. The phrase that goes along with that ceremony is “What is dead may never die.” The idea is that adherents are symbolically drowned, to keep them safe from harm (this is a very warlike seafaring group).

Of course, I’m not really equating following Jesus with being pirates in some fantasy world. But perhaps we can learn from it anyway. Clearly, Christians do still die. But what about “see death?” Seeing something means looking ahead to it. Maybe, what this means for us is that we don’t “see” death because, for followers of Jesus, we are to see beyond the ending of our physical bodies. What has died (to death) can never die.

Jesus’ words, it seems to me, are all about the kingdom of God. To obey his word is to live for that kingdom. When we live into that attitude, we don’t see our own fate as having any significance. We don’t see death, because it doesn’t register as anything significant. We don’t always live into that ideal, but we have those moments. Few and far between, maybe, but we do have them.