Acts 17:10-15 – Being Open-Minded

Frank Zappa quote

That same night the believers sent Paul and Silas to another city named Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was true. The result was that many of them believed, including many important Greek women and men.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was telling people God’s message in Berea, they came there too. They upset the people and made trouble. So, the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Those who went with Paul took him to the city of Athens. They returned with a message for Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as they could. (ERV)

Everywhere the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys he experienced both acceptance and opposition. Determined to spread the good news of Christ’s redeeming work, Paul found a receptive audience and was able to establish churches. However, by doing this, he also upset the religious status quo wherever he went, as well. As a result, there were times when Paul and his colleagues needed to steal out of town before an angry mob could get their hands on him. Sometimes, the furious cabal got a hold of him, and Paul forever carried the scars of those beatings on his body.

So, it must have been a refreshing experience for Paul to arrive in the city of Berea (located at the base of the Olympian Mountains in southwestern Macedonia) and discover a different spirit than he typically found in other places – a willingness to investigate, scrutinize, and grapple with the message presented.

To spiritually thrive and flourish in this life we all must embrace the noble character of remaining open-minded with a teachable spirit. Just as the body grows, changes, and matures over time, so the human spirit does the same. This means there is continual spiritual development. To become closed-minded and believe all questions are answered and settled is to cut off oneself from truth and reality.

The Apostle Paul, I believe, is a good model of what it takes to be open-minded and a lifelong learner. The following are some ways he kept alive to spiritual truth:

Paul found his motivation. He went on missionary journeys because he wanted to make Christ known in places where he wasn’t. “It doesn’t matter if people are civilized and educated, or if they are uncivilized and uneducated. I must tell the good news to everyone. That’s why I am eager….” (Romans 1:13-14, CEB)

Paul went to new places. Getting stuck in a rut comes from never doing anything new or going to new places. We don’t have to be missionaries like Paul to do some movement and discover personally unexplored places, both literally and spiritually. Habits and routines are good. Sometimes we just need to create new ones so that we see a different perspective and have new experiences. The inability to see another’s viewpoint comes from an unwillingness to entertain any kind of change.

Paul avoided speculation. He did not superimpose his own experiences onto others. Paul was remarkably open to people everywhere he went, instead of being afraid and expecting trouble and/or abuse. In other words, the Bereans were open to Paul because Paul was open to them. Paul avoided looking at them as Thessalonians or Philippians, both places where he got into loads of trouble just before coming to Berea. A contemporary way of stating Paul’s attitude and practice is that he was free of prejudice and discrimination.

Furthermore, notice the intellectual characteristics of the Berean people:

  • They were curious to hear what Paul thought.
  • They were able to have their ideas challenged.
  • They didn’t get angry when new ideas were presented.
  • They practiced both intellectual humility and mental empathy.
  • They believed Paul had a right to share his arguments, beliefs, and thoughts.

Today, in our intellectually and politically polarized world, far too many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So, they are unwilling to wrestle with spirituality by eliminating all mystery from their religion. When that happens, oppression is born. These are the folks who could not tolerate Paul’s ideas and gave him such a hard time. By rejecting alternative ideas that might challenge the status quo, people may be able to minimize uncertainty and risk – or at least their perception of risk – yet, the closing of their minds to other’s thoughts opens them to abusing the bodies of those same people.

When people are intellectually and spiritually proud, they wrongheadedly believe that they already know all there is to know, and so, they refuse to listen. At best, this limits the potential for learning; at worst, it forms a cognitive bias which blinds them to their own ignorance and blunts their ability for compassion. Instead, it is imperative we be humbler about our knowledge and that there is always more to learn.

Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom. As the source of all light, enlighten our spirits. Pour out on us the spirit of understanding so that our hearts and minds may be opened. Amen.

Acts 7:44-53 – God is God, and I Am Not

throne of heaven

The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for God. However, the Most High does not live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says,

Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord,
‘or where is my resting place?
Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’

“You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors did not harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you have betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.” (CEB)

In the doldrums of summer’s heat and humidity and the uncertainties of what is to come in the autumn season, it is a good time to remind ourselves of where we are in the Christian Year. When a long and difficult season comes upon us, whether in secular or sacred time, it may be far too easy to lose sight of what is important.  We have come through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, as well as Pentecost.  With the giving of the Spirit, we have entered Ordinary Time.  A healthy way of remembering this period in time is that, in this longest season of the Church Calendar, it is the ordinary vocation of each Christian and every Church to grow in Christ and share the good news of Jesus with the world.

Yet, we forget. The vicissitudes of this life and a penchant for hand wringing can easily take our eyes off our calling from the sovereign God.  Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become stubborn, hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way to the neglect of what God wants. When that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated. Ironically, those who speak and act in the name of the Lord are resisting him.

Every time individuals and groups of people believe they have piously figured everything out, they will soon find themselves fighting against God. The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a delusional world. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices.

Village Church

How then shall we live? What are we to do?  Let go of our illusions of power and privilege. Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the only true God in all his immensity. Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and set aside self-righteous pride so that he may exalt and honor us at the appropriate time of his choosing, not ours (1 Peter 5:6). Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, having become new people and knowing the reconciling power of the cross, through the proper spiritual tools of faith, hope, and love (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 13).

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch your faith muscle. Physical muscles which get little to no use will atrophy – which is why people who are confined to bed or with limitations need physical therapists to help work the muscles. Spiritually, if we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith muscle, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked.
  • Breathe deeply. Proper breathing is essential in using our bodies. The same is true spiritually. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e. breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Avoid extreme positions. A hyper-extended muscle will tear and cause a lot of damage. An acceptance of limitations and an awareness of our body’s true capacity prevents us from trying to do something our body simply cannot do. Our faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test.
  • Move more. Getting in bodily shape does not have to be dramatic and involve triathlons (but, hey, if you can work your way up to it, more power to you!). Most of us simply need to get out of our chairs and move a bit more and we would be a lot healthier. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen, do not ignore. It is always best to listen to your body— only push it as far as it can handle, even if it is little by little. Many people would be better served if they would just listen to their gut and the spirit God put within them – rather than pushing themselves and others beyond what they can handle. Behind the attempt at doing too much is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness and knowledge of a huge unlimited God and a small limited self. This will take loosening up on the stubbornness and opening to greater flexibility. In doing so, we bless both God and the world, while discovering our true calling. And, we might just discover the largeness of grace operating in our lives.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool.  You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith.  I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus.  Amen.

The Community of the Redeemed

Devoted to Fellowship

It seems everyone has their own ideas about church – what it is and what it should be – whether one needs to be part of a local congregation, or not. No matter the view, we all intuitively know that:

We are created and hardwired for community.

The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible presents Christian community as the primary means of becoming spiritually formed (Acts 2:42-47). And that community dynamic revolves around Jesus Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christians are not just any old community and not just some random benevolent organization. Christians together are the Church. They are the Community of the Redeemed, purchased from the slave market of sin with the blood of Christ, and devoted to knowing Jesus and making him known.

The early church possessed a group dynamic second to none. To be sure, they had their issues (e.g. antagonisms between Jews and Greeks, and bogus converts attracted by the power). Yet, problems are to be expected because the Light is always going to attract some bugs.

The early church consisted of new converts, having responded to the Apostle Peter’s preaching about Jesus. The transformation of these early followers of Jesus is nothing less than amazing. Many of these very same people had applauded the murder of Jesus. However, after Christ’s ascension, the people realized they were complicit in the death of Jesus and were cut to the heart and changed their minds. In a mass conversion, thousands embraced the grace of God in Christ. They quickly became a group of Christians:

Committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come in amazing ways.

Two major commitments of the new believers were the basis of the church: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. Within that close fellowship were firm undertakings to eat and pray together. It is no wonder this curious bunch of people became noticed. After all, sharing food and providing prayer are compassionate activities. In a world starved for basic human kindness, the believers’ attention to the feelings and needs of others must have been a respite to the people around them.

Devoted to One Another

The Christians were hungry for instruction. They craved teaching and fellowship so much that they met every day. They gathered in the Jewish temple, and in homes. That reality of the church so long ago is a clue for the modern church that both large group meetings and small group gatherings are paramount for healthy spiritual growth and development. The gatherings of the early Christians were characterized by a deep engagement of Scripture with one another and of heartfelt participation in fellowship.

Mutual learning and sharing are for everyone – not just for a select few, or for extroverts.

That is why throughout the New Testament the metaphors used to describe the Church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ (biological metaphor), the Temple of God (building metaphor), and as the army of the Lord (battle metaphor) are all images that emphasize the redeemed community’s vital need to work, worship, and have a wide reach together. Indeed, true discipleship happens because of life together.

Metaphors are important; they pack meaning to ideas. So, it is important to be aware of church metaphors which emphasize only the individual and ignore the community. For example, imagining the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low neglects the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other folks, the church is imagined as a movie theatre – which disregards our contribution to community. The emphasis is on a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you came in. Or some might imagine the church as a pharmacy – a place where you can fill a prescription which will deal with your pain in a slip-in and slip-out sort of way. Others might opt for imagining the church as a big box retailer – a place that “offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family,” along with a marketing model of evangelism: “Come to our church; we offer great service and great programs at a great low price.”

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. The church, without question, ought to serve and meet individual needs. And there are times and seasons of life when all an individual can do is consider their own spiritual and emotional health. The problem arises when we only ever function as independent persons who have no intention of being interdependent with others through living the Christian life together. The early church was faithful to learning the Word of God together. They committed themselves to fellowship with one another. They practiced hospitality. The new Christians prayed with each other every day.

The early church’s teachable spirit along with an emphasis on fellowship brought amazing results. Everyone was filled with awe of God. Everyone saw and experienced miraculous events. Everyone looked out for the common good of all. Everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life. Everyone praised God. Everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them. And, all this behavior brought numerous people to faith. This was a group who demonstrated deliverance from empty lives and presented an alternative way to live – a life filled with receiving grace and giving grace to others.

Stained Glass Window

To have that kind of group dynamic, the path the church took was a dedication to Holy Scripture and Christian community every day! Indeed, for healthy churches everywhere, and in all times, congregations continually exhibited courage and vulnerability. The word “fellowship” in Scripture (κοινωνία – pronounced “coin-o-nee-a”) literally means to be “yoked together.” Just as two oxen in a yoke must work together and plod forward being mindful of each other’s steps, so Christians have the invitation to yoke with Jesus and learn from him. Gentleness and humility are sorely needed in this polarized and often petty world we live in. So, the loving participation of fellowship is more than important and influential – it is vital and urgent.

The earliest Christians are portrayed as a group of people who intensely desired the apostles’ teaching and could not get enough of sharing life together as followers of Jesus. They were such curious learners and had such a depth of love and concern for one another that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt open and free to discover more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously and humbly gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

The type of community life which the early church had might seem to be an ideal which is not possible today. I wholeheartedly disagree. Because I myself have experienced such a group dynamic in my own life. In my college days there were dozens of us who became Christians in a short period of time, much like in the book of Acts. We were a rag-tag group of new believers who deeply hungered for spiritual food and craved the fellowship of one another. We met every day in dorm rooms and cafeterias, at the student union and in the library, and even sometimes in off-campus bars.

Everything we had we shared with each other – both our possessions as well as our hearts and lives.

And there was a solid two year stretch in which the Lord added to our numbers daily those who were being saved. We were attached to our Bibles as if they were a fifth appendage on our bodies. There was no separating us from each other. We needed one another’s Christian fellowship and spiritual support every day. In fact, we needed one another so much that we all ended up marrying each other so that the fellowship did not end.

Oh, my friends, how much we need one another! How much this old fallen world needs a yoke that is gentle, kind, gracious, and loving! Christian disciples are formed and shaped in the context of community. The collective conversations of our experiences and insights; the use of our hands and feet to work together; and, the sharing of our resources and of our time are all necessary for becoming spiritually mature in Christ and blessing the world. Confidence is gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what’s needed.

May the group dynamic and the results of those earliest believers so long ago be our communal experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.

Acts 20:17-38

            Apparently, real men do cry.  When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way.  Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other.  Paul remembered that he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person “with tears” (vv. 19, 31).  Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time and “there was much weeping on the part of all” (v. 37).
 
            Paul did not shrink from declaring all the will of God to the church.  Neither did he hold back the tears and was not afraid to allow his emotions to be an integral part of his ministry.  One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers from the Enlightenment project of sheer intellectual rationalism is that over the past several centuries we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick.  The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, providing them the correct information, they will have everything they need and do the right thing.  Try telling that to Paul.
 
            Christianity that does not include the vital element of the emotions is a truncated spirituality that desperately needs some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ.  So, let’s all have a good cry today.  Weep over the lost persons who are in need of salvation; shed some tears about believers who are not growing in their faith; bawl and let our eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have moved on and/or passed away; and, cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God.  Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain and find the mercy of God.
            Gracious God, you have created us all in your image.  Help me so to connect with your emotional self that I will not be stifled in my faith, but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church.  Amen.