Acts 7:30-40 – Full Acceptance, Not Partial

“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’

“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people. ’He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and, in their hearts, turned back to

Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ (NIV)

We humans are a confusing paradox of sinner and saint. We are majestic people, created in the image and likeness of a good God. We are also profoundly fallen, touched by sin in every area of our lives. Our hearts exist with both light and darkness, having the capacity for both incredible altruism as well as inexplicable evil.

So then, it will do no good to retreat into binary definitions of people as being either good or bad. No, we shine and shadow at the same time. What really gets us into a terrible mess is when we ignore or deny our shadow selves. We then demonize the other while claiming purity for ourselves.

This is precisely what occurred with Stephen and a group of his fellow Jews who refused to acknowledge their shadow side. And it resulted in Stephen’s stoning and death. Whereas Stephen lifted and brought to light the unseemly aspects of their collective heritage, the people wanted nothing to do with it. In our present day, the response might be something like, “Quit being so negative. We focus on the positive. Expel this recalcitrant troublemaker once and for all!”

Oy. Acceptance cuts two ways. We must accept both our blessings and our curses. And acceptance of reality will not occur apart from a solid self-acceptance of who we are and how we are feeling in any given situation. On the practical level, it works something like the following story…

Several years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. 

One day, it was very windy and several of us were on a lake canoeing to a destination. It was late May, which means the water was still ice cold in Canada. One of the canoes capsized and we had to act quickly and deliberately – which was no small feat in a stiff wind. More than fifteen minutes would result in hypothermia for the two people in the water.

I did not like being in that situation. In fact, I didn’t much like the Canadian wilderness. Too many black flies and giant mosquitoes for me. My shadow side was coming out. But here I was, and I had to accept the reality I was in. One of the lessons I learned in that moment was that acceptance can sit alongside other reactions and emotions.

For example, a person can be outraged by an injustice, as Stephen was, and accept that it is a reality. Acceptance does not mean complacency or giving up. We can accept something while at the same time trying to make it better.

I also needed to accept what was happening inside of me. I was cold and worried. Trying to push those feelings away would have only added to the stress of the situation. If I failed to accept what was true about myself, I would be less able to deal with the situation, and so, would compromise my ability to help two people at risk.

I needed to accept the whole circumstance, including myself. Accepting what is inside gave me more influence over the situation, not less. Self-acceptance became the key to acceptance of unwanted conditions, and more importantly, acceptance of one another as human beings.

In that moment of rescuing two people (which ultimately proved successful) I became aware of a part of myself – the part that gets afraid and irritated – and chose not to stuff it or deny its existence. I became the guy who talked to the panicked people in the water and kept them as calm as possible so that the others could get them out. I was able to do my part to help fearful people because I acknowledged and accepted my own fear.

Unlike my situation, however, Stephen’s experience ended in martyrdom. Just because we respond rightly is no guarantee that everything will work out for our benefit. Rather, we say and do the things we must say and do, while leaving the results to a sovereign Lord. It is our responsibility to work on ourselves, not others. And acceptance is the path to get there, all of it, not just part of it.

Jesus, let your mighty calmness lift me above my fears and frustrations. By your deep patience, give me tranquility and stillness of soul in you. Make me in this, and in all things, more and more like you. Amen.

Acts 15:36-41 – Imperfect Relations

Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they should not take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (CEB)

Perfect consensus, complete harmony, and perpetual peace are ideals, not reality, this side of heaven. Oh, it is not as though we ought to give up striving for such things – we just need to understand we will only experience them partially, and not fully, until Christ returns. 

Imagine if Paul and Barnabas, along with their entire coterie of people who traveled with them, decided that they would not go anywhere until there was 100% consensus on every decision to be made. It could be that they would never get anything done at all. It is sad when people cannot come together and be of one mind, but it happens, and will happen again. Sometimes we simply need to go and do what we think is best, whether others agree with us, or not.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”

Mahatma Gandhi

I am a bit adverse to taking sides on most things, but I admit to having a bent toward going with Barnabas. His name means “Son of Encouragement.” He understands taking someone under his wing and giving them a second chance when they screw up.  Barnabas had a soft spot for John Mark.  Barnabas seems like the kind of guy who knows about grace. This is a guy I could hang out with.

Paul, on the other hand, had much more of a Type A personality. I can just imagine Paul saying, “There are things to do, goals to reach, areas to conquer. I don’t have time for this whining and cry baby stuff.”  Paul did not want someone in the group slowing them down with fear or lack of courage. For all that I appreciate about the great Apostle Paul in the New Testament, sometimes he strikes me as being too driven and difficult to work with.

Yet, in the end, taking sides is not really the issue. It is about God working a divine, sovereign, and good will through stubborn and stupid people like me, and maybe like you, who sometimes get lost in winning an argument. 

When all is said and done, nothing is going to thwart God’s providential plans and purposes in this world.  So, rather than taking sides, I think I will rely solely on God’s grace and mercy in my life to work through me, despite my oft short-sightedness.

Holy God, you work your good purposes in and through your people, no matter what.  I want my life and work to be a joy to you and with others, and not a burden.  Create in me a clean heart.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting, through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Acts 5:33-42 – Worthy to Suffer Disgrace

The Apostles by Russian artist Peter Gorban (1923-1995)

When the council members heard this [God raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree] they became furious and wanted to kill the apostles. One council member, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law named Gamaliel, well-respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be taken outside for a few moments. He said, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and some four hundred men joined him. After he was killed, all his followers scattered, and nothing came of that. Afterward, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and got some people to follow him in a revolt. He was killed too, and all his followers scattered far and wide. Here is my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you will not be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!” The council was convinced by his reasoning. After calling the apostles back, they had them beaten. They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, then let them go. The apostles left the council rejoicing because they had been regarded as worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name. Every day they continued to teach and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, both in the temple and in houses. (CEB)

People talk about things which are important to them. Even quiet and introverted individuals will speak at length, barely taking a breath, if you get them on a topic for which they are passionate about. 

Today’s New Testament lesson has the Apostles speaking incessantly about someone they love to talk about.  In fact, the original disciples of Jesus chattered so much about who they loved, Jesus, that the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) wanted to shut them up by killing them. But a wise member of the council saw the foolishness of this approach and persuaded the Sanhedrin against it. Instead, the council gave the Apostles a thorough whipping, warned them to stop talking all the time about Jesus, and let them go.

There is a time to listen, and there is a time to speak.  The Apostles could not keep silent.  They considered their beating an act of solidarity with their Lord Jesus and went right on talking. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

The joy of knowing Jesus – crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again – is such a rich experience that one cannot help but be a chatterbox with joy about him. Even in the face of persecution, the ecstasy of knowing Christ transcends physical pain and suffering.

Today, there are places throughout the world where the scenario of continual discourse about Jesus is taking place with joy, despite the presence of persecution.  There are also places, mainly in America, where talking about Jesus does not even take place in the church building where believers gather to worship, let alone out in the public square.

One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Western church is that one can talk freely and openly about the weather, the latest sports, political happenings, and get away with never speaking or dialoging about Jesus.

The Apostle Peter, having learned the hard way, exhorted believers in his epistle that suffering is inevitable. So, the real issue is whether one suffers because of Christ or because of their own wrongheaded decisions. If others reject us, let it be for holiness, love, and hospitality – and not for babbling a bunch of unbiblical nonsense. Peter said:

Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude… Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice because you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 5:1, 12-16, NIV)

Today, allow two different emotions to arise and sway your prayers and speech.  First, allow the joy of the Lord Jesus to fill you and give you freedom to speak his Name and the grace he gives.  Second, allow a sorrowful lament to come forth from your heart, and speak it out loud before God concerning the great silence of the church in the West.

Loving Lord Jesus, you save completely those who come to you by faith.  Thank you for the work of forgiveness and healing that takes place in your Name everyday in the world.  Yet, I also lament the many confessing believers in your Name who never speak of the good news in their everyday conversations, even within the church.  Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy and grant us peace.  Amen.

Acts 13:16-25 – The Motivation of Ministry

Paul speaking in the synagogue, a 12th century Byzantine mosaic

Paul got up. He motioned with his hand and said:

People of Israel, and everyone else who worships God, listen! The God of Israel chose our ancestors, and he let our people prosper while they were living in Egypt. Then with his mighty power he led them out, and for about forty years he took care of them in the desert. He destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan and gave their land to our people. All this happened in about 450 years.

Then God gave our people judges until the time of the prophet Samuel, but the people demanded a king. So, for forty years God gave them King Saul, the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Later, God removed Saul and let David rule in his place. God said about him, “David the son of Jesse is the kind of person who pleases me most! He does everything I want him to do.”

God promised that someone from David’s family would come to save the people of Israel, and that one is Jesus. But before Jesus came, John was telling everyone in Israel to turn back to God and be baptized. Then, when John’s work was almost done, he said, “Who do you people think I am? Do you think I am the Promised One? He will come later, and I am not good enough to untie his sandals.” (CEV)

In the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had the practice of traveling from city to city and attending the local synagogue services. It was customary to have a time in the worship when a word of encouragement could be offered from folks in the congregation. Paul consistently took those opportunities to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” 

Søren Kierkegaard

Paul’s conversion to Christianity totally altered his motivation. Jesus was everything to him. Jesus is what got him up in the morning. Jesus is who sustained him through his days. Jesus was who Paul thought about when he went to sleep at night. Paul was unabashedly Christo-centric in all he said and did.

As for me, the spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. As a Christian, I believe all spiritual care begins and ends with Jesus. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting the divine in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, all persons on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. So, my identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care. 

What is more, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. Christ entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and the power of touch.  Christ was able to listen to others because he first listened to the Father. Jesus was present to others because he was present with the Father. Jesus Christ gave love to others with the love he enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit. 

By the wounds of Christ, we are healed. Paul knew this firsthand. He needed a boatload of emotional and spiritual healing from his guilt and shame as a persecutor of faith before his conversion. Paul discovered in Christ the grace of healing, both body and soul.  

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. The Apostle Paul had a doozy of a life story to tell. Coupled with his keen intellect and training, Paul could be very persuasive. Paul’s ministry, emulating the life of Christ, was not to force the gospel obnoxiously and belligerently onto others but to pastorally respond to everyone he encountered. Both Paul and Jesus confronted and confounded folks with incredible love.

The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.

karl barth

Every person, without exception, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of Godlikeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. One of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from mutual seeing and being seen, reciprocal speaking and listening, granting one another mutual assistance, and doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people – which is why Paul was intensely personal and relational in his missionary ministry. Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Paul always traveled with others.

Christian ministry is a symbiotic relationship between the servant and the served, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do what I do, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ, and I have a hunch it was the same for Paul.

Loving God, the One who cares and saves, enable me, like your servant Paul, to speak peace, be hospitable, heal the sick, proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, not take rejection personally, and let you do your work of changing lives and bringing them into the dance of the Trinity with Christ and your Spirit. Amen.