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.

A Parable about Faithfulness (Luke 19:11-27)

Parable of the Ten Minas, by Dutch painter Willem de Poorter (1608-1668)

The crowd was listening to everything Jesus said. And because he was nearing Jerusalem, he told them a story to correct the impression that the Kingdom of God would begin right away. 

He said, “A nobleman was called away to a distant empire to be crowned king and then return. Before he left, he called together ten of his servants and divided among them ten pounds of silver, saying, ‘Invest this for me while I am gone.’ But his people hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We do not want him to be our king.’

“After he was crowned king, he returned and called in the servants to whom he had given the money. He wanted to find out what their profits were. The first servant reported, ‘Master, I invested your money and made ten times the original amount!’

“‘Well done!’ the king exclaimed. ‘You are a good servant. You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward.’

“The next servant reported, ‘Master, I invested your money and made five times the original amount.’

“‘Well done!’ the king said. ‘You will be governor over five cities.’

“But the third servant brought back only the original amount of money and said, ‘Master, I hid your money and kept it safe. I was afraid because you are a hard man to deal with, taking what isn’t yours and harvesting crops you didn’t plant.’

“‘You wicked servant!’ the king roared. ‘Your own words condemn you. If you knew that I’m a hard man who takes what isn’t mine and harvests crops I didn’t plant, why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’

“Then, turning to the others standing nearby, the king ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’

“‘But, master,’ they said, ‘he already has ten pounds!’

“‘Yes,’ the king replied, ‘and to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. And as for these enemies of mine who didn’t want me to be their king—bring them in and execute them right here in front of me.’” (New Living Translation)

The great humanitarian issues of this world are not only individual concerns but are also systemic problems.

And the majority of those troubles are us climbing the wrong ladder. It’s a booger to get to the top and find out all that energy was expended for a worthless chamber pot full of $%&!.

So, whenever we examine Holy Scripture, especially the words of Jesus, it’s necessary to pay attention and hear both the responsibility of individuals and the accountability which human culture has to ensure a just society and equitable structural systems.

In other words, evil resides in both the individual human heart and in the world’s operating system. Corporations, communities, and churches not only have sinful persons within them; sin also resides in the very ways we about business, interactions, even worship.

Westerners tend to read a story, like today’s Gospel parable from Jesus, with individualist eyes. Yes, it is about individual servants; and it’s also about community and culture – and ultimately about the kingdom of God.

The cost of Christian discipleship is high, demanding both personal and communal faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

Christianity is concerned for all of life – not just the religious parts but all the parts – both body and soul, personal and communal, church and workplace, individual minds and institutional education, healthy emotional selves and healthy public discourse. It all matters to God.

Whoever’s in charge makes a big difference as to whether right and just systems are followed, or whether corrupt and oppressive operations are the chief mode of ruling.

To illustrate the contrast, Jesus told a parable about systemic evil and whether one will be faithful to that or some other way of operating.

In the parable, the nobleman becoming the king is a reference to an earthly ruler, not Jesus. Before this worldly prince takes off to obtain more authority, he summons ten of his servants and gives them each ten pounds, or coins.

As the sort of person who rules in standard worldly ways, the nobleman fully expects the servants to operate just as he himself would: collect unfair taxes, squeeze the poor of what little they have, and generally do whatever it takes to make a profit. This, of course, is why the story tells us that the general populace hate the guy in charge.

Parable of the Ten Minas, by Unknown 16th century artist

This is not a parable about rejecting the Messiah or God; it is about authority and government, economics and politics, systemic oppression and structural evil. It’s about where our faith and commitment is truly placed.

The ruler is quite pleased when the first and second servants faithfully invest in the politics and economics of his worldly kingdom. So, the servants are rewarded for abiding by the system.

However, if you buck the system, like the third servant did, you’ll get condemned. That servant knew the sort of ruler he was dealing with and the kind of cutthroat system which was in place. And he wanted nothing to do with it.

The third servant in the parable is unfaithful to the unjust ruler and oppressive system because he is faithful to another lord with a different kind of system. This servant was prepared to accept the consequences of his convictions and his inaction. In a way, he was practicing civil disobedience.

As servants under God’s rule and reign, we are not to play along with worldly systems of injustice and oppression. If we want to be faithful Christian disciples, then we must live into the words and ways of Jesus; we must be prepared to pay the price for our commitment to an alternative kingdom.

Everyone has faith. It’s just a matter of whom and what we place that faith in.

Perhaps Jesus had the words of his mother, Mary, in his mind when he told the story. She was willing to accept whatever happens in a complete commitment and faith in God:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, NRSV)

Jesus was unlike any earthly ruler. Christ operated very differently than any worldly government. He and his teaching were in stark contrast to others:

God will bless you people
who are poor.
    His kingdom belongs to you!

God will bless
    you hungry people.
You will have plenty
    to eat!
God will bless you people
who are now crying.
    You will laugh!

God will bless you when others hate you and won’t have anything to do with you. God will bless you when people insult you and say cruel things about you, all because you are a follower of the Son of Man…. So when this happens to you, be happy and jump for joy! You will have a great reward in heaven.

But you rich people
    are in for trouble.
You have already had
    an easy life!

You well-fed people
are in for trouble.
    You will go hungry!
You people
who are laughing now
    are in for trouble.
You are going to cry
    and weep!

You are in for trouble when everyone says good things about you. (Luke 6:20-26, CEV)

In order to embrace Christian ethics, worldly practices have got to be jettisoned. To make room for the good, the just, and the right, we must let go of any and all ways contrary to our Christian commitment of following Jesus.

Are you willing to be the third servant?

Gracious and sovereign Lord God of all, in your mercy, hear our prayers:

Help us to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter.

Show us how to serve one another, to offer love, care and support.

Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world.

Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations.

Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.

Comfort those who live with grief. Help them see the light of heaven.

Heal all the broken-hearted and those with broken bodies and spirits.

Embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel your abiding and close presence.

Watch over all who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.

Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable.

Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers, and answer them according to your good grace and in your good time. Amen.

On the Need for Humble Leaders (1 Peter 5:1-11)

I appeal to your spiritual leaders. I make this appeal as a spiritual leader who also witnessed Christ’s sufferings and will share in the glory that will be revealed. Be shepherds over the flock God has entrusted to you. Watch over it as God does: Don’t do this because you have to, but because you want to. Don’t do it out of greed, but out of a desire to serve. Don’t be rulers over the people entrusted to you but be examples for the flock to follow. Then, when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Young people, in a similar way, place yourselves under the authority of spiritual leaders.

Furthermore, all of you must serve each other with humility because God opposes the arrogant but favors the humble. Be humbled by God’s power so that when the right time comes he will honor you.

Turn all your anxiety over to God because he cares for you. Keep your mind clear and be alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion as he looks for someone to devour. Be firm in the faith and resist him, knowing that other believers throughout the world are going through the same kind of suffering. God, who shows you his kindness  and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. Power belongs to him forever. Amen. (God’s Word Translation)

“The most powerful weapon to conquer evil is humility. For evil does not know at all how to employ it, nor does it know how to defend itself against it.”

St. Vincent DePaul

The real mettle of a person, especially a leader, is not seen in their very visible public service. Rather, solid spiritual leadership is forged in the invisible places, in the daily mundane tasks which no one ever sees.

It is in our most unguarded times that we really demonstrate who we are. This is the sacred space where humility is learned and developed. Therefore, to know a genuinely humble leader, one must follow that person in the common course of daily life.

Leaders without such a foundation of daily and consistent faithfulness will eventually crack. Ministry gradually becomes more duty than delight. Service to others is eventually measured by church attendance, monetary offerings, and public image. The soul shrinks over a long stretch of time, almost imperceptibly.

In a slow drift, faith fades, and anxiety fills the emptiness; glory grows dim, and greed grows destructively. Safety and security are ensconced as primary values to mitigate the nagging sense of worry. The original adventure of confident faith, conviction of purpose, and compassionate ministry becomes a bygone era.

Thus, it is most necessary to return to the queen of all virtues, the ideal Christian ethic for all followers of Christ: humility.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-7). With humility, our eyes are filled with spiritual sight, seeing and honoring the larger realities of the universe. Without humility, there is blindness, an inability to recognize the need for God’s grace.

The sinister approach of sinful pride is revealed in the wrongheaded thought, “I’m fine. I can do it on my own. I don’t need you, thank you very much.” 

So, how’s that been working for you lately? Are you frustrated, worried, despondent? 

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

St. Augustine

Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. It is neither weakness nor a cenobite self-abnegation into denying my personhood. Instead, a humble spirit:

  • Renews hope. Spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders make for spiritually and emotionally healthy congregations. Humility discerns that all Christian ministry rests with the sufficiency of Christ, not me, thus kindling a future hope in realities bigger than me.
  • Relieves anxiety. Humility knows and rests in the hands of a good and merciful God, rather than a perceived need to “look out for number one.”
  • Resists the devil. A robust faith always has a strong foundation of humility, helping us see that Satan has nothing we want. 
  • Remains steady. Humility is willing and privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ, and so, can persevere through both bad circumstances and boredom.

As individuals, we all need to gain and maintain a humble spirit. Humility really is the virtue to which everyone must aspire. It delivers what we need the most: To rest secure in the merciful arms of God. 

In this old fallen world, every family, neighborhood, organization, institution, corporation, and government is in desperate need of humility. We’ve already made quite enough mess of things with our human pride.

Within the church, and inside of every religious community, it is most necessary to reinforce all leadership appointments and staffing with humility. No amount of human intelligence, skill, and hard work can make up for a lack of humility. 

God is sovereign and in control. So, the sooner we sync our lives with this truth, the better off we will be.

Sovereign God, you cause people and nations to rise and to fall. I place my complete trust and devotion in you. With all the humility I can muster, I bow to you and submit to your gracious work in my life and in the life of the world. 

Shoo all sinful pride far from me, create in me a pure and humble heart, and let me share in your sufferings so that I might share in your glory, through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. 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.