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.

Luke 5:1-11 – Generous

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they did, they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. So, they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So, they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him. (NIV)

One of the most fundamental characteristics of God is generosity. God’s benevolent nature defines the divine stance toward humanity. This may not seem overly remarkable with only cursory thoughts about God. Yet, when the infinite holiness of God intersects with the prideful arrogance of sinful people, gracious generosity is the unpredictable and amazing result.

Many people on planet earth have been raised with a god who is aloof and curmudgeonly. Such a god gets easily angry and zaps people with lightning or some natural disaster. It is no wonder so many persons have fled from belief in God. Can we, however, entertain the notion that the Creator God of the universe is quite the opposite? In Jesus, we have on display the basic disposition of the Divine.

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

On one occasion, Peter (a guy who could raise the ire of most gods) was going about his business fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Having not yet encountered Jesus but stopping to listen to his words, Peter ended up having this stranger literally get in the boat with him, uninvited. There was something remarkably different and compelling about Jesus since Peter did not immediately toss him out. Such a calm, confident, and gracious nature – nothing like Peter had expected. So, here is this plan fisherman face-to-face with the Christ of God. 

Jesus told Peter to put the boat out and cast the nets. Peter, an experienced fisherman and knowledgeable about the water, knew for certain that he would not catch anything. But, out of deference to Jesus, he did so, anyway. The result was such a large catch of fish that the nets nearly broke from the weight.

Peter’s response is instructive. He fell at the feet of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  Peter came up against his own small faith. He rightly discerned that he did not deserve such generosity from Jesus, an overflowing abundance given to him despite his unbelief. In the face of such grace, in the vortex of an incredible mercy, having seen the generosity of God directed squarely at him, Peter left it all behind to follow Jesus.

So, here we have the nature and character of God before us. No cranky deity. No exasperated God ready to raise a storm and toss the boat over with Peter in it. No, Jesus, the Son of God, does not operate that way. There is no strong-arming people into faith. God’s tactics steer clear of manipulation through guilt, or mind-twisting others through shaming them. 

Instead, God is beautifully and simply present with people – showing grace and generosity in places where one would least expect to find it. When confronted with such love, what would you do?

Early in my life, I viewed God as some eternally bored deity who would occasionally get out his divine BB gun and shoot people in the rear, just for something to do. God, in my understanding, cared nothing for the real lived experiences of people on earth. But much like Peter of old, Jesus showed up unannounced in my life. And what I found was like Peter – a kind, benevolent Being who showered such generous love on me that my heart was immediately captured. I have never looked back since.

We intuitively know down in our gut, in our bones, when genuine Love is among us because it immediately connects with the deepest needs of our lives. No evangelist must convince us with offering free gold crosses or promised blessings. None of that matters when love incarnate is present, when the great God of all is among us. Peace, hope, and faith are the results of divine presence. They cannot be conjured or ginned up through excessive asceticism or extreme discipline. Love is a gift. Love is a person. And it is given generously and graciously from the One whose very nature is charitable and hospitable.

Gracious God, you sent your Son to me even though I was neither looking for him nor expecting anything from him. Thank you for breaking-in to my life so that I could break-out for you with glory, honor, and praise.  Amen

Luke 6:27-31 – Love Your Enemies

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” NIV)

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

–Frederick Dale Bruner

Here are a few rhetorical questions, considering the astounding words from Jesus to love enemies: Have you ever had someone not like you?  Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? I once had a next-door neighbor who was plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When such things happen, it is tempting to respond in kind with the same behavior as the obnoxious person.  Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies of getting back at others when they do or say offensive things, and we consider them an enemy.

The situation with my neighbor was frustrating, yet quite benign. It is an entirely different matter trying to love someone who has deeply hurt us. Their words of malice or actions of abuse are evil, and we naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting them back. This is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It will be hard to love a villain apart from the grace of God, and Jesus knew what he was asking of us.  He does not ask of us anything that he himself has not already done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle for us, at times. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because that is what God does.

Jesus did not say anything new in calling for neighbor love. The Old Testament clearly says to do so: 

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to hate your enemy. However, over time, the idea became popular that if we are told to love our neighbor, then we must hate our enemy (who is not our neighbor). Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I encounter is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need. (Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus let us know that when we walk in the way of love, we will sometimes be treated harshly by the world (Matthew 5:10-12).  When that happens, Christ says we must not exact revenge or retaliate. Even more, we are to respond with overt gestures of love, rather than simply ignoring them.

We are to pray for our enemies. It is hard to hate someone or a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. Pray the Spirit would open their eyes so they can see the error of their way. Make sure to leave the judgment to God, for that is divine business, not ours.

We are to love because God loves. To love those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. When we love our enemies, without expecting anything in return, we imitate God’s character as children of God:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He did not love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG)

If we have no love for our enemies, then we are no different from them. Christians are to be distinctive because of the way they treat others, especially outside the faith. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. God does not expect us to live as followers of Jesus by only showing reciprocity, that is, just giving back to those who already have given something to us. Instead, we give even when we are persecuted. We do this because God shows no distinction in the distribution of sunshine and rain. Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, can be God’s rain and sun toward others.

“To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.” Alfred Plummer

Grace, undeserved kindness, is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

During World War II, a Lutheran pastor, imprisoned in a German concentration camp, was tortured by an S.S. officer who wanted to force him to a confession.  The pastor did not respond to the torture.  His silence only enraged the officer to such a degree that he hit the pastor harder and harder until he finally exploded and shouted at him, “don’t you know that I can kill you!?”  The pastor looked him the eye and said, “Yes, I know – do what you want – but I have already died.”  At that point, the officer lost power over the pastor.  All of the officer’s cruelty had been based on the idea that the pastor would hold onto his life as his most valuable property and would be willing to give a confession in exchange for his life.  But with the grounds for his violence gone, torture had become a ridiculous and futile activity.

Our human relationships may easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, when we make enemies of each other and treat people as properties to be defended or conquered instead of precious gifts to be received. If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace,
you have asked us to love our enemies 
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, 
may all people learn to work together 
for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.
Holy Spirit of God, we ask you for the strength and the grace to love those who harm us, that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have hurt our church.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.  Amen.

Psalm 110 – The Priest King

Jesus Christ – Eternal High Priest by American painter Joan Cole

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
    on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
    your young men will come to you
    like dew from the morning’s womb.

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
    and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
He will drink from a brook along the way,
    and so he will lift his head high. (NIV)

Today’s reading is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament (twenty-four times) and is mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed. The reason for this is, of course, because Christ’s apostles discerned Jesus as the messianic ruler of the psalm. The writer of Hebrews had the purpose of emphasizing the superiority of Jesus Christ over all others, and so, lifted this psalm, along with other psalms, and placed it in the beginning of his argument:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So, he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs….

But about the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
    a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
    therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
    by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

He also says,

“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.”

To which of the angels did God ever say,

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet”? (Hebrews 1:1-13, NIV)

Jesus the King of the World in Czestochowa, Poland

In Christianity, Jesus is the ultimate Mediator between God and people. Neither angel nor any human can fill such a role. The author of Hebrews wanted to make it clear that Jesus is the rightful Ruler of all creation. Christ’s authority is far and above all others. So, Christians are never defenseless in this world. Believers have a sovereign Mediator and King to willingly submit to, knowing that Jesus has the power and authority to back up his words of love and assurance.

Jesus has the unique combination of being both King and Priest, the One who intercedes for us and leads us with compassionate leadership. Again, the author of Hebrews uses Psalm 110 to emphasize this:

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. Therefore, he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.

In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,

“You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father.”

And he says in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:1-10, NIV)

Jesus Christ demonstrated and proved he is qualified to be the rightful Priest and King through obedient suffering. That means he is perfectly suited and able to help us. Christ is no detached and aloof King and Priest. He knows exactly what it is like to be a human in this broken and fallen world. Such divine empathy translates into solid emotional and spiritual support because, as the Christian tradition holds, Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all through the Cross.

The Messiah’s enemies, whose final defeat is certain, are not Gentile kingdoms or human institutions. The ultimate foes are the hostile and evil principalities and powers of this dark world, including death itself. The universal reign of Jesus, the exalted Son of David, brings deliverance from guilt, shame, and injustice as the unique God-Man.

In this unabashed Christian view of Psalm 110, Jesus is our perfected high priest who is able for all time to save those who approach God, since he always lives to make intercession for us. (Hebrews 7:25)

The appropriate response to such a great King and Priest is submissive loyalty and eternal praise.

May it be so to the glory of God.

O Lord our God: Reign in power over us, through your Son, Jesus Christ – for he is exalted over all governments and authorities, all ideologies and creeds, and all human hearts and souls. King Jesus: Be enthroned in our lives, in all people everywhere, as our mediator and atoning sacrifice. Spirit of God: Reign in power over us through Jesus Christ and give us the victory over all the enemies of our souls, within and without, for the glory of your Name. Amen.