Keep Your Conscience Clear (Acts 24:10-23)

When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 

But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs. (New International Version)

Without exception, everyone has a conscience. It is our internal moral compass, an intangible guidance system.

Conscience is humanity’s hard-wired epistemic sense of knowing what and what not to do, beyond the five senses. The still small voice inside us continually gives discernment that transcends objective facts – even though we may not be able to articulate or explain why we know something is right or wrong.

Our conscience keeps us from being morally empty, bereft of direction, and aimless in this world. Paying attention to our conscience serves us quite well. The conscience is the angel on our shoulder, directing us to do and be better; it is the inner compunction to live a beautiful, good, and ethical life.

By allowing the conscience to chart for us a course forward, we can then avoid inaction in the face of stress, as well as immoral words and actions. The conscience tempers our inbred fight-or-flight syndrome so that we might respond wisely to adverse situations. 

The Apostle Paul, as was usual with him, was in a pickle. Yet, Paul never seemed to be shaken with circumstances which most of us would probably consider so distressing as to fall into despair.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul is in custody. While standing trial before Governor Felix, Paul used the opportunity to give a clear and rather relaxed testimony to his Christian faith. 

I suggest that the Apostle was able to give a cogent apologetic for his life and ministry – not because he was trying to get off the hook or because he thought it was his duty – but because of his well-attuned inner compass. That inner guidance system led him to say:

“I have committed myself to maintaining a clear conscience before God and with all people.” (Acts 24:16, CEB)

Statue of St. Paul in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, Rome

Living with an awareness of the conscience, and carefully listening to it, creates the ability to speak from that place of insight.

There’s no need to do all sorts of mental gymnastics or spin-doctoring. Although Paul gave a clear defense of his actions and attitudes, he did it without having an insecure defensiveness. Because of his conscience, he could articulate truth and steer clear of white lies and propping-up his ego.

I also suggest that the Apostle Paul’s effective engagement with others came from his God-given inner conscience. So, I wonder: 

  • How might my life be different if I shared the same concern as Paul to always have my conscience clear before both God and others? How might the world be different if this was a dedicated commitment?
  • What would happen if I sought to continually be in dialogue with my conscience and make decisions based on that connection? And what if I consistently brought before God the musings and inklings of my conscience?

The human conscience is not static but dynamic. It can be strong or weak. If it doesn’t get regular use, the conscience withers, eventually becomes calcified, and results in a hardening of the heart.

The following are just a few ways of gaining a healthy conscience and keeping it clear and clean:

Acknowledge

Make an acknowledgment of God. The Lord gave us an internal conscience of law and also an external code of law. They are both meant to operate together. The conscience needs to be formed from God’s revelation, that is, God’s written and natural laws; and then, we live life as God intends. 

The conscience is like a law written in the human heart. And it will show whether we are forgiven or condemned. (Romans 2:15, CEV)

“Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.”

St. Bonaventure

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22, NIV)

Affirm

Let your own good deeds and the works of others be affirmed. Have realistic expectations. The lack of affirmation slowly and imperceptibly poisons the soul and infects the conscience.

“I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did. I thank him as I remember you always in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3, GNT)

Ask

Petition God for help. Pray for divine resources to assist you. Divine wisdom guides human affairs. Divine authority governs human community. Divine love gives shape to the human conscience.

Pray for us. Our consciences are clear, and we always try to live right. (Hebrews 13:18, CEV)

Allow

Let other people into your life, whether Christian, or not. Sharing thoughts and ideas, feelings and emotions, concerns and celebrations, are all a path toward a healthier spirit, a better awareness of self and others, and a stronger conscience.

If someone who isn’t a believer asks you home for dinner, accept the invitation if you want to. Eat whatever is offered to you without raising questions of conscience. (But suppose someone tells you, “This meat was offered to an idol.” Don’t eat it, out of consideration for the conscience of the one who told you. It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person.). (1 Corinthians 10:27-28, NLT)

Acquire

Develop the necessary spiritual skill set of wisdom and holiness to feed the conscience. Let grace be the primary teacher.

We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you. (2 Corinthians 1:12, NLT)

Pay attention to your conscience. Keep it clean and clear. It’s there to serve you well. So, let it.

Gracious God, you provide everything we need for life and godliness in this world. Help me to keep my conscience clear in all my words and actions; and keep it tender toward your will so that, through me, others might experience through the life-giving message of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Comfort For Those with Troubles (2 Corinthians 1:1-11)

St. Paul, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1657

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (New International Version)

You probably didn’t sign-up for trouble.

Although varying from person to person and from group to group, all of us experience trouble in this world.

The Apostle Paul experienced a lot of trouble throughout his Christian life:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NIV)

Why didn’t Paul get cynical or jaded by his awful troubles?

What was the secret to Paul’s incredible resilience in the face of such trouble?

How did Paul get through all of that nasty trouble?

Paul, in my opinion, was the consummate Christian. He is the model missionary, mentor, pastor, and caregiver. Yet, it wasn’t his superior giftedness or dogged personality which got him through the tough times.

The Apostle persevered through trouble without succumbing to despondency by receiving help.

Let’s be honest: Most people would rather give than receive – and that is a good thing. Yet, what isn’t a good thing is continual caregiving without yourself receiving care.

We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves. 

The caregiving Christian needs to be vigilant about practicing selfcare and understanding their limitations. One must not pretend to be super-spiritual, with unlimited super-strength and super-compassion, extended to others 24/7 with super-skill. It’s neither realistic, nor smart. 

Caregivers, and not only care recipients, need to accept comfort from both God and others.

“We must accept our vulnerability and limitations in regard to others.  We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves.”

Mother Teresa

The word dominating today’s New Testament lesson is “comfort.” It’s used by Paul ten times in these verses. Comfort involves both speech and action, words and deeds. For comfort to happen, someone comes alongside another and helps them with both loving actions and encouraging words.

We can only give what we have – which means that if we want to continue helping and caring for others, there will need to be continual healthy rhythms of receiving comfort yourself. We provide for others from the largess of grace given to us by the God of abundance.

Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. The troubles have caused such a change and loss that they need help getting out. And the way people get unstuck and resolve their troubles, is through telling their story – which requires someone else to listen. 

St. Paul, by Rembrandt, 1630

Through my own experience of trouble, as well as helping others through their trouble (and sometimes being a troublemaker!) I have developed a checklist of things to do, to allow, and to keep in mind as a caregiver:

  • Live a balanced life. Live in the tension between caring for others and caring for self – without assigning any judgment, shame, or guilt to any of it.
  • Learn to trust other people. You aren’t the only person on earth who can care for the people you care for. Let them contribute so that you can take have a respite.
  • Make a list of needs and concerns. Do this both for yourself and those you care for. Delete those needs that you personally cannot meet. Of the remaining needs, determine the ones for which you are primarily responsible, then, decide which ones are the most important.
  • Contact your Pastor. That’s what he/she is there for. Reach out. You aren’t in a John Wayne movie or an episode of the Lone Ranger. By the way, you know they’re fictional characters, right?
  • Carry your own backpack. Other people have their own backpacks to carry filled with troubles and responsibilities. Although you can help shoulder their load, taking the weight completely off is Christ’s job, not yours. What’s more, don’t fill your own backpack with rocks that leave you with a crushing weight. Be realistic and confident in what you can and ought to do, as well as what you cannot and should not do.
  • Listen to others. Trusted family members and friends usually see the signs of stress in your life before you do. When they speak up, give them your attention. They know what they’re talking about.
  • Accept help. The fast track to bitterness and burnout is refusing the assistance of others who can give you a break in your constant caregiving.
  • Involve others. There are individuals willing and ready to participate if you would just inform them as to what would be helpful.
  • Talk to a therapist. We all get overwhelmed in particular seasons of life. If caregiving has become a compulsion, then take one hour per week to meet with a good therapist or counselor to talk through things in your life.
  • Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Then, delegate some more.
  • Recharge your soul. Find personal time for yourself daily. Engage in things that feed your spirit and energize your inner person.
  • Don’t waste your time and energy. Some people aren’t going to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it; and they don’t really want to understand. And it is not our job to make them understand.
  • Don’t manipulate others. A common temptation is to try and force family, friends, and faith communities to do what we want them to do, whenever we are heavy into ministry. Instead, focus on your own responsibilities and don’t worry about everybody else’s.

God always has a listening ear. The Lord knows grief better than all of us. Jesus understands trouble. In Christ, hope is kindled, care is received, and comfort abounds.

May you, by faith, enter into abundant life – despite the circumstances – so that your overwhelming trouble is transformed into overflowing comfort. Amen.

The Necessity of Mentoring Relationships: Paul, Tom, and Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Orthodox icon of St. Paul
Orthodox icon of St. Timothy

You’ve been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Message)

Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Paul, the Apostle and mentor in the faith; and Timothy, the apprentice.

Together, they saw it all – and experienced it all. And through it all, the Christian tradition was passed on because of Paul’s purposeful mentoring of others, especially Timothy, by both verbal teaching and life example. In this, Paul helped set Christianity on a trajectory of modeling the words and ways of Jesus.

Faith is a gift given by God through Scripture and faithful people – and then received by us. Christianity is designed for community; it is not merely a solitary affair between the individual and God. Anyone trying to go it alone in the Christian life will soon discover they are overwhelmed and in over their heads with trouble.

Contemporary pastoral ministry still needs to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Just one of the many reasons why churches in the West are in such decline is that Christian leaders are not intentionally focused to passing-on a solid body of teaching, along with a consistent example of how to put it into practice, through close relationships.

Anyone who has been in the pastoral ministry gig for a long time, remaining consistent and faithful, has most certainly had a good spiritual teacher and guide shepherding them through their Christian experience. A good long ministerial life isn’t happenstance; it’s the result of a solid foundation through a Paul-and-Timothy sort of relationship.

Mosaic of Paul and Timothy, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, Italy

By God’s grace, I’ve had several persons influence my life in profound ways in such a relationship. One of the earliest and longest was with Tom – a campus minister on my university who built into my life as an undergraduate and a very young Christian. We remained connected and became good friends for nearly four decades until his untimely death.

Tom knew what he was doing with me. To this day, even with multiple academic degrees and many professional ministry experiences, I attribute most of what I know about Christian faith and practice as simply saying and doing what I saw Tom say and do. And, I might add, Tom consistently saw my true self, even when I didn’t see it myself.

A good model in the faith has the same qualities and insights as the Apostle Paul of old. For example, here are just a few of the important things I learned from Tom:

  • Christian ministry is interpersonal; time must be spent with others, getting to know them and building relationships. Doing pastoral ministry from afar is an oxymoron. From what we know of Paul, at times he had a team of up to seventy persons following him around on missionary endeavors.
  • There are always going to be charlatans and bad apples around. Don’t simply ignore them. Confront them in grace and truth. I still remember a time when I went along with Tom, not knowing where we were going or what he was up to. In retrospect, he probably knew I would bolt if I caught wind of what he was about to do. We went to the dorm room of a believer whom Tom flat-out confronted on his talking and living being inconsistent with his professed Christianity. My eyes got huge when Tom said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and I call you to repent.” This was said in a gracious and conversational tone, not in anger, which communicated concern and love for this individual student.
  • Develop relationships. And the best way of doing this is by having the Timothy tag along with the Paul. Tom continually brought me along to whatever he was doing, whether it was a weekend retreat he was leading, or going to the grocery store. We cannot learn from others if we aren’t around them, and Tom understood this better than most. As a result, I learned more than lessons; I learned a life.
  • It’s not about me. Tom never took himself too seriously. And because of that, I observed him never becoming overwhelmed or obsessing over the trouble he would sometimes get into. In fact, he typically welcomed the trouble whenever he saw it was not of his own making.
  • Openness and vulnerability are necessary. More than once, Tom strolled into a bible study with me and some other guys, flopped down and said, “Man, I really blew it today…” and then went on to explain some boneheaded thing he did. We unpacked the entire situation together. Not once do I ever recall Tom trying to look like the perfect Christian leader. He embraced who he was and was always willing to shine the light on the shadowy places of his heart.
  • Holy Scripture is central to Christian life and ministry. Inevitably, Tom’s question to us, after describing his bonehead move, was to ask, “What are you learning in God’s Word? Do you have any encouragement for me?” On a daily basis, without fail, Tom asked this question of me: “So, what is God teaching you in the Word?”

Through both Holy Scripture and the significant relationships I’ve had throughout my life, I can confidently state that there are two indispensable elements to effective Christian ministry:

  1. It must be firmly grounded in objective theory derived from God’s Word.
  2. It must be intentionally practiced with subjective experience derived from interpersonal relationships.

Objective theory without lived practice leads to being puffed-up with knowledge and no love – because love requires people. And subjective experience without a grounded theory is nothing but a form of spiritual A.D.D. in which whatever shiny thing we see grabs our attention.

I always considered Tom as my spiritual father (and his wife as a dear spiritual mother!). They have shown me not only how to live the faith, but also how to be a spiritual father myself. And as a result, my own dear wife and I have many spiritual children scattered throughout the country.

This is the consummate Christian: Coming to faith by God’s grace, mediated to us through actual flesh-and-blood people; being taught and mentored in that faith by proven Christians; and then, simply saying and doing what you have seen and heard from holy leaders and Holy Scripture.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not abstract art. It’s a life. It’s relationships. And it’s absolutely necessary in order for both the church and the world to be blessed.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously. (Micah 6:8, MSG)

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

Get Rid of Sin (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)

The Apostle Paul at his Desk, by Rembrandt, 1657

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels, to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one person wise enough to decide between brothers and sisters? Instead, brothers and sisters go to court against one another, and this before the unbelievers.

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and brothers and sisters at that.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (New Revised Standard Version)

The one constant which every Church and each Christian will have to deal with until Jesus returns is the ever-present reality of sin

“Sin” isn’t a word that is much used anymore, even among many Christians. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that we have expanded our vocabulary to better understand the concept and reality; and it’s bad because we sometimes label something as different than what it really is.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church confronts the presence of sin within the congregation. The reason why the letter is so long is that Paul painstakingly deals with every sin that had taken root in the community.

St. Paul at His Writing Desk by Rembrandt, 1630

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul mentions some of those sins, especially tackling the unhealthy way the Christians were dealing with their internal strained relations of each other. One of the ways sin manifests itself is through confronting another’s sin with our own sin. Yeah, it gets complicated pretty quickly when that happens.

In other words, we too often try to meet a legitimate need through illegitimate means. That sort of practice is at the core of many a sinful attitude and action.

So then, there were those in the Corinthian Church who had legitimate grievances but sought to rectify the situation using secular means to handle a sacred need. Instead of focusing on restoration and relationship, utilizing the spiritual implements of gentleness and humility, they gave into the temptation for retribution through unrighteous persons who would level judgment.

None of this is intended for Christians to avoid the established court systems of the land. Rather, it is a warning not to punch somebody in the face when they slap you on the cheek. Seeking punishment isn’t the way of Christ. Reconciliation and restoration has been achieved through the cross of Christ – and Paul expected the Church to live as a new community based in mutual encouragement and accountability.

Paul clearly saw the shadowy places of the human heart and understood that light needed to come to those hidden areas. And he wasn’t about to sit back and let bitterness spread like gangrene in the Body of Christ.

Sin is both things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. 

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as a holy and loving Being. 

Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God. All sin, whether in our actions or inactions, is rooted in an attitude and activity of self-centeredness, of thinking about ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than God. 

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1633

The consequence of this sin brings about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

This means that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality; we fail to live into being ethically virtuous people on any sort of consistent basis. Yes, I know this all sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Well, actually, it’s total depravity. But being depraved doesn’t mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and satisfaction comes through knowing how great our sin is. We live above sin by being set free from it through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

In order to be redeemed from sin, a provision must be made – and sin has been dealt with, once and for all, through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the retribution we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore the believer in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects, consequences, and origin of sin. The sin issue has been handled decisively and definitively; the Christian is now complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

Sin is awful. It ruins relationships and destroys everything it touches. Sin leaves terrible consequences in its wake and a bad aftertaste. Yet, sin does not have the last word; grace does. 

Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the decisive blow to sin’s power. The Church is built on this foundation of grace and reconciliation between God and people. Anything less is neither Christian nor a Church but a country club of people plotting to get back at others while eating tartlets and talking gossip. 

The bad news is that sin is really bad; but the good news is that Christ is really good, and overcomes the worst that sin can throw at him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.