Acts 10:34-43 – Alive with a New Vision

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (New International Version)

Peter’s Vision

The Apostle Peter, a Jew, was told by God to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. God had given Peter a vision of unclean animals, saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  While Peter was wondering about how to make sense of this, men came to retrieve Peter and take him to the house of Cornelius the Centurion.

The death and resurrection of Christ is universal in its scope. It effects every person on planet earth. God shows no favoritism. The cross of Christ is for all kinds of people from every nation, race, and ethnic group. Peter invites us to have a perspective on the cross which delivers us from all wrongdoing and misguided living. The Apostle encourages us to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as a new lease on life to millions of people. Peter’s message is to view the life and death of Jesus and see it as our redemption.

My Vision

For the first seventeen years of my life, I grew up in a nice family, a nice church, and attending a nice school. I heard the facts of Jesus, and the story of Jesus. I heard and understood that Jesus lived on this earth; lived a holy life; was a loving and good teacher; that evil persons had him arrested, tortured, and killed on a cross; that after three days he rose from death; and, that he now lives with the Father in heaven. I simply took all these Christian facts for granted. And yet, I never looked at those facts from my own perspective.

I did not see that as a teenager I was metaphorically speeding down a gravel road about to hit a t-intersection and face spiritual death. I did not interpret those events of Jesus from the angle that it was all done for me.  After all, there are all kinds of needy and lost people in the world, and I was living in Christian America. It’s all good for me, right? 

But it wasn’t all good. My heart was dark and unable to see the good news that Jesus did it all for me. Then, not too unlike what God did for Peter in seeing the world a new way, I saw that Jesus died for me. It totally changed my life.

“For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Romans 6:9-11, NIV

Suddenly, I saw life around me as if it were a new world. I began seeing and experiencing God’s love. I started to see the beauty and grace of God everywhere. I began to experience peace. These are the very things the gospel does for us – changes us from the inside-out.

When Peter preached his message to the household of Cornelius, they both were changed. Peter gained a brand new perspective on Gentiles and on God’s grace. And Cornelius began to interpret Jesus in a way that brought hope and life. 

A Cosmic Vision

In forty years of proclaiming the message of God’s peace through Christ to others, I have seen that the gospel is for everyone – poor and rich, the paranoid schizophrenic and the well-adjusted, addicts and non-addicts, those without much education and the highly educated, mean people and nice people.

One of the interesting things about the book of Acts is that it ends quite abruptly. We have all these wonderful stories about the good news of Jesus changing people’s lives, and then, in the middle of one of those stories with the Apostle Paul, the book of Acts just ends with chapter 28. The wise way of interpreting the abrupt ending is to see that God is still writing a story. The Lord is still active in the world, helping people to see Jesus in new and life-giving ways.

Today the right and proper way to interpret the story of Christ is that he is alive!  Because he lives, we live, if we direct our faith squarely toward Jesus. There is forgiveness through the cross. Since Jesus is alive, we are alive. Alive to the grace of God that has taken care of the guilt and shame issue once for all through the cross. Alive to the possibilities of what God wants to do in and through us. Alive to the people around us who need Jesus. Alive to one another. Alive in Jesus. 

God Almighty, thank you that Easter is for all people, that your love and salvation are for all who confess with voices and heart that the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen so that we might know forgiveness, and be reborn through Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

John 14:18-31 – I Will Come

16th century depiction of the Last Supper

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Come now; let us leave.” (New International Version)

Grief Amongst the Disciples

“He’s leaving!? What!? Huh!?” Although Jesus had tried to prepare the disciples for his impending cross and resurrection, they didn’t quite catch on. It was in the Upper Room, in their final meal together, that Jesus made it plain he was leaving – going back to the Father. (John 14:1-17)

There was both confusion and distress amongst the men. Anticipatory grief had suddenly smacked them like a golf club upside the head. Dizzied and dazed with thoughts their Lord would no longer be with them, Jesus then sought to assure them that this would be temporary. He is coming, again. In fact, they will experience more than one.

Christ is Coming Again, and Again

Three comings were to be realized:

  • Rising from death and appearing to the disciples.
  • Sending the Spirit as the continuing presence of Christ on earth.
  • Returning at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus was caring for his followers, including us, by providing future hope.

That is just what happened with the first two comings. Christians everywhere celebrate the rising of Christ from death, his ascension into heaven, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Christian tradition holds that the Spirit – the Paraclete, Advocate, Comforter, and Counselor – is now presently with us.

Although the world no longer sees Jesus, believers see him with eyes of faith, hope, and love. Christians intuitively perceive another spiritual dimension in which Christ is beside them in the person of God’s Spirit. Some things can’t be intellectually explained. They just are.

Meanwhile, while Christians everywhere await the return of Christ to this earth, they are busy loving their Lord through obedience to his commands. And his command is to love one another as he loved them. Love and obedience go hand in hand. To know the love of God in Christ is to willingly give oneself to obey such a merciful Being.

The Spirit’s Help

We are not left alone to fumble around on this earth, trying to love in our own strength or ability. The Spirit is present, helping us to do loving work. There is real spiritual assistance in applying Christ’s teaching to the practical aspects of life in the here-and-now. Such constructive down-to-earth support gives Christians a sense of peace and integrity of living.

“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”

Jesus (John 14:27, NLT)

Unlike worldly peace, which typically uses war to try and end war, has merely the absence of conflict as its goal. However, the peace of Christ is intensely personal. It is his very own peace. Through Christ’s suffering and death, he absorbed in himself the malice and hatred of others and introduced peace – a new harmony through love.

The profound absence of love, the rebellion of humanity against concern for the common good of all, and the shame of selfishness that damns the world is overthrown by the obedience and self-sacrifice of Jesus. The world will learn this – either by discovering the love of Christ now or, at the end of the age, with the return of Christ.

Jesus has come, is here, and will come again. These comings are for us and for our deliverance from all that is unjust and broken in this world. We are not alone. There is ever-present help. This is the basis of the Christian’s confidence.

Come, Holy Spirit, and fill the hearts of your faithful with divine love. Come as the wind that blows, come as the fire that refines, come as the dew that refreshes. Convict, convert and consecrate us until we are wholly yours, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Mark 14:26-31 – Pride Comes Before the Fall

Peter Disowns Jesus by Ethiopian artist Nebiyu Assefa

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”

But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (New International Version)

Learning to Trust

I have two sisters-in-law who were lifeguards when they were teenagers. One day I watched one of them handle a group of kids experiencing their first swim lesson. She went to each child and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms. Truth is, almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest. But people who think they will sink don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They just couldn’t seem to rest and relax with Jesus holding them up. After all, Jesus said and did things they were not expecting him to say and do. Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies. He focused ministry on the least and the lost. 

Different Agendas

The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda. They kept pulling their knees up, thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map. Bless their hearts, the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was there to immediately restore the glory days of Jewish dominance in the land.

Despite Christ’s teaching and ministry, some folks believe God’s agenda ought to be restoring prayer in public schools and The Ten Commandments back in courthouses. But Jesus has a different agenda. Christ goes to the heart of the matter. New life is what he is after. Transformation leads to observance of God’s will so the least and the lost persons among us will be reached. 

Jesus turned the world upside-down by insisting not that people come to the temple but that the temple worshipers go to the people. It was not a popular teaching with the disciples, let alone everyone else. The disciples had greater (or so they thought) ideas about how things ought to go.  

Christ followers might neglect the upside-down teaching ministry of Jesus because we believe ourselves to be good people. We already assume we know what God wants. And we would never betray Jesus, right!?  O, sure, we sin occasionally, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are respectable – a little resentment here, a little prejudice there, or a smidge of gossip just to make sure outsiders know and respect their place.

However, we must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. And once we hear the bad news and accept it, we need to receive God’s remedy for it. The disciples Peter and Judas are contrasting figures in grasping Christ’s message and responding to it.

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas had similar ideas about how the future should look – seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a religious and political Zealot. And Peter had no problem picking up a sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus. Yet, Jesus flat-out told him that would happen. Sure enough, Peter did a big belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Then there was Judas. He caught on quicker than Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Talking about wasting time on marginal people who couldn’t help usher-in a glorious revolution was the last straw for him.  After Judas clearly saw Jesus had no intention of fulfilling what he thought should happen, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

In fact, none of the disciples wanted to take a step of commitment into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others. They wanted glory, not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized, after denying Jesus, they had made a terrible mistake. However, that is where the similarities end. Judas responded to his guilt by completing suicide.  Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas handled the guilt himself. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter, instead, wept bitterly. He realized his poverty of spirit. He mourned over his sin. Later, Peter became a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him. Having received grace, Peter became a preacher of truth and grace.

Stubborn Pride

Renewal comes from spiritual transformation. It requires a brutally honest assessment of self and others. “I will never fall” comes from a heart that believes “I’m not so bad.” Our failures of faith stem ultimately from pride and a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people have little need for prayer because they are self-sufficient. However, humble people pray a lot! They don’t want to fall into temptation and defame the name of the Lord. They pray because apart from Jesus Christ they know they’ll act like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. Even Jesus himself felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of humanity.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him at a distance. That describes too much of our own following of Christ. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. Jesus invites us to trust him, to commit, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. 

It could be that we need to acknowledge we’ve made a mess of our lives through being stubborn. Perhaps we have willfully held to our own ideas of how things ought to go, for far too long.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else’s, grace is the thing that can handle it. That is, coming to God with honesty and humility. Being willing to rest and relax when Jesus is telling you to. It’s okay to let your knees go down and stick the belly button out – to rest in Jesus.

Give us honest hearts, O God, and send your kindly Spirit to help us confess our sins and bring us the peace of your forgiveness, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 95 – Worship and Whining

Psalm 95 verse 4, by Cecelia Nedlin

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
    as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(New International Version)

Revelation and Response

Praise and thanksgiving. Complaining and grumbling. These two sets of words are antithetical to each other. Yet, out of the same mouth can come both worship and whining. Maybe the psalmist was trying to teach us a thing or two by inviting us to sing and bow to the Lord, as well as hear God’s voice.

Worship and listening are meant to go hand in hand. Revelation and response are to be the spiritual rhythm of the believer. True worship is a divine conversation between us and God. The Lord speaks. We listen and answer. Back and forth we go together. God and God’s people are in dialogue.

When the worship rhythm is off, then our response will be off. And that is what happened to the ancient Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from their cruel bondage in Egypt. You can imagine the kind of praise and worship service the people had in the desert! After four-hundred years of slavery, freedom!

The Rhythm is Off

Before you know it, the thanksgiving turned sour into grumbling. At the first instance of adversity, when there was no water to drink, it was as if the people had some sort of collective dementia set in. Suddenly, hardness of heart. Talk about fickle! One minute hands are raised in praise, the next minute, those same hands clench into fists shaking at God.

The people forgot that this was an ongoing dialogue – not a one and done conversation of revelation and response. God acted by delivering the people. The people responded with praise and thanksgiving. And they didn’t want it to stop. Yet, all of life is a rhythm. What goes up, comes down. Good times eventually fade into tough times. The real muster of any person or group is the response when the hardship comes.

God knew exactly what he was doing. The Lord purposely brought the Israelites out into the desert to face a difficult circumstance. God was teaching them to trust. The Lord wanted a response of faith and prayer to the adverse situation. But the people weren’t looking for a dialogue. They were looking for water. And when they didn’t have it, their hearts hardened through murmuring, bellyaching, and dissatisfaction.

However, God was still in the conversation. The generation who saw the incredible deliverance from bondage would die in the desert, never setting eyes on the Promised Land. And it all began because of grumbling.

Complaining is Unhealthy

We need to take complaining seriously. Why? Because it rots the soul, like Mr. Grinch who incessantly complained every year about Christmas. Grumbling makes one into a Grinch-like creature, like the song says:

You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel…

You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Your heart’s an empty hole
You got garlic in your soul.

It was only when the Grinch forsook his isolation of complaining and began connecting in conversation with the folks in Whoville, that he had his rhythm restored.

The Need for Encouragement

When our rhythm is off kilter, what will it take to get it back? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews helps us here. After quoting our psalm lesson for today, the writer responded to the biblical revelation by saying:

Be careful, brothers and sisters, that none of you ever develop a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. After all, we will remain Christ’s partners only if we continue to hold on to our original confidence until the end. Scripture says, “If you hear God speak today, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be stubborn like those who rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:12-15, God’s Word Translation

Revelation and response are the rhythmic dynamism of the Christian community. Lone Ranger Christians are an oxymoron, as well as moronic. We are hard-wired by God for community. All of us need to encourage one another – every day. Without the communal connections of encouraging conversations, it will be difficult to sustain a divine dialogue of God speaking, with people listening and responding in obedient faith.

Celebration is wonderful. We need times and experiences of celebrating deliverance from bondage. Eventually, when Christ returns, there will be unending worship in the form of jubilation. That time is not yet here. This side of heaven, we must learn to engage God in ways which address our hardships and difficulties. Otherwise, our hearts will become stubborn and hard.

Let your heart become open enough to receive encouragement. And let it also be brave enough to encourage others.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused earthly pain to be holy. And you gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will. Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.