Acts 28:23-31 – Focused on Mission

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

“‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

“Therefore, I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul took quite a licking throughout his Christian life. Incredibly, Paul not only physically survived whippings, beatings, stoning, arrests, shipwreck, and imprisonment – he also came through it all with a robust spirit and a dogged determination to live his life with purpose and mission.

Acts 28 is the final chapter in the book. Paul is in Rome under house arrest. Even in this situation, he kept finding ways to engage others. Since he couldn’t go to them, he had others come to him – lots of them.

Paul described to the visitors his own experience of encountering the risen Christ. He reasoned with his fellow Jews and vigorously debated with them from the Scriptures. It was always the deep desire and hope of Paul that his own people come to faith in Christ, just as he had. Although some did, most didn’t.

Many decades ago, my grandfather was approached by one of his friends about investing in a new insurance company startup. For a lot of reasons, grandpa ended up not participating in his friend’s venture. So, the friend asked others. Eventually, the startup happened and steadily grew. Today, Nationwide Insurance has over 250 billion dollars of assets. Good old gramps just didn’t know what he was rejecting.

The good news of Jesus Christ, I believe, is worth infinitely more than an insurance company. Christian mission, I believe, is worth investing my life into. I’m glad the gospel was proclaimed to Gentiles because I am a recipient of such grace. And I’m grateful that Paul tenaciously kept interacting with people for the last two years of his life under arrest.

Despite, and even because of, Paul’s sufferings and his house arrest, the message of faith and forgiveness in Christ was confidently and consistently presented to a steady flow of people, including the highest heads of state. Difficulties are no problem for God. The Lord bends all circumstances to divine and good purposes, creating new avenues of faith, hope, and love that wouldn’t be possible under “normal” times.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jim Eliot

In fact, Paul endured five years of imprisonment: two in a Caesarea jail; two under house arrest in Rome; and nearly a year in transport between the two cities. For a personality like Paul, we might imagine this would drive him nuts. Yet, several letters to the churches, now contained in the New Testament, were written during that time.

Whether we like it, or not, nothing proves, affirms, and grows our faith quite like our willingness to endure suffering for the gospel. Witness, suffering, and martyrdom are inextricably bundled together in God’s economy. When suffering is viewed as a necessary means to an altruistic and noble end, then, although the pain is no less real, there is the opportunity for both willing endurance and genuine joy.

Paul was willing to labor on behalf of people who were very different from himself. His concern was for all people everywhere – both his own people, the Jews, as well as Gentiles. Paul never gave in and never gave up. He had a magnanimous spirit and even greater spiritual gifts. He willingly and gladly used that spirit and gifts for the benefit of humanity.

In 64 C.E. Paul was condemned and executed. Before his death, he wrote that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Now, the next generations of new believers must follow in his footsteps and continue the work

This is precisely why the book of Acts ends so abruptly, with no resolution, no tidy conclusion – because the work is still being done and will carry on until Christ returns.

Gracious and loving God, you work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. In your Son Jesus, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, you invite each of us to join you in your work. We ask you to form us more and more in your image and likeness, through our prayer and worship of you and through the study of Holy Scripture so that our eyes will be fully opened to your mission in the world. Then, God, into our communities, our nation, and the world, send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all of your creation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.. Amen.

Philippians 1:18-26 – Do What’s Most Important

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century C.E.

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (New International Version)

So, what do you think leads to disunity in any group, whether in a church or elsewhere?….

Yes, unfortunately, there are many things which can divide a group of people. Chances are that discord comes from a lack of listening and love. And behind that lack is a spirit that desires attention and accolades. In other words, there cannot be unity whenever everyone wants to take credit for what’s good and blame others for what’s bad.

The Apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Philippian Church, had a humble self-effacing approach to ministry. Paul knew exactly what was important to him and the advancement of the Church, namely, that Jesus Christ is proclaimed, that the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ is given to people.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

And so, for Paul, his purpose was crystal clear. Although he really didn’t like bad attitudes and impure motives, if the message of Christ was preached, that was of upmost significance. It didn’t matter to him if people took credit for his work, or not. Not a lot of people can say that.

The Apostle focused on himself. Ultimately, we cannot control anyone; we can only practice self-control. And that is exactly what Paul did. Notice that in today’s New Testament lesson, Paul expressed his own desire to live a life of hope, courage, and selfless ministry. He understood that all the troubles he had experienced up to this point, would likely keep happening in this earthly life.

Paul could have started a new apostles’ retirement community, stepped out of the fray, and simply studied Torah all day. It’s probably what he really wanted to do. But Paul knew better. He knew it was better for all the churches he planted that he keep laboring on their behalf.

Even though Paul was ready to die and be with his Savior forever, he wasn’t going to grab control that wasn’t his. Someday he would die, or Christ will return before that time. Until then, he was going to do his darndest to ensure the gospel of Jesus is spread far and wide.

A spiritually healthy believer in Jesus both longs for heaven and Christ, and also puts their head down and faithfully plugs away with listening to others and loving them to Jesus with gracious words of forgiveness and merciful acts of kindness.

I imagine when Paul wrote this letter, he was downright tired. I can relate. Laboring day after day as a hospital chaplain and a church pastor often leaves me with little rest and carrying the emotional burdens of both places. There are so many people who need basic human kindness, common decency, and focused encouragement. And they don’t get it because there are far too many people far too absorbed in maintaining mastery of their very small worlds.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

There are days I’d like nothing more than retreat to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, read and write in a small cabin, and catch fresh walleye for my supper. Maybe that will happen someday, but not today. Today is all we have. Today is the day of salvation. There will not always be Today. Christ is coming. Then it will be tomorrow. And tomorrow is too late for too many people.

So, I continue, working with all the energy (or lack thereof) which the good Lord gives me. After all, we are not God. Everyone on this planet has only a finite amount of energy and life. The question then becomes, How will you spend your energy and your finite resources?

I suggest we take our cues from good old Apostle Paul and not bad old Jacob Marley, who didn’t get the picture until it was too late. I’d rather live right, die well, and enjoy eternity – instead of living like a peacock, dying kicking and screaming, and having a miserable eternity.

In this Advent season, we have the opportunity to focus on what’s most important, then live with those priorities in the next year.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

John 4:31-38 – Real Food

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying ‘One sows, and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel narrative reads something like the stereotypical mother concerned for her son saying, “Sit down and eat some of Mama’s pasta. You need some food!” As if preparing and serving a meal will make everything better.

Food has both the power to bring us together, as well as separate us. A meal can create the conditions for fellowship, acceptance, and enjoyment. Eating can bond people together through hospitable love. On the other hand, sitting down to eat can also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In this manner, eating becomes an obstacle to giving and receiving love.

It seems Christ’s disciples were doing the latter. They were uncomfortable and perhaps a bit stressed. Looking to fill up with food instead of with God, the disciples’ sense of unfulfillment was coming out sideways by opening the refrigerator, poking through the meager leftovers, and putting the emphasis on feeling better.

I know we can be hard on the disciples in the Gospels. Their ups and downs from faith to fear and back to faith again can be weird. Yet, through it all, I believe their hearts (excepting Judas Iscariot) were in the right place.

Jesus could see through the entire scenario and put the focus off eating. He addressed the disciples’ soul hunger through putting the spotlight on doing the will of God. Deep within they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Paying attention to our vocation and discovering our humble work in the service of God, rather than a vacation to the pantry to cover our unwanted feelings, is the essence of Christ’s interaction with his disciples.

People are much more ready for the gospel of Jesus than we think. There are times we can become so insular, and lost within our own heads, that we are then unable to see the world as ripe for a harvest of people who are actually eager to be gathered into the community of the redeemed.

Jesus just had a significant interaction with the Samaritan woman. Back in that day, you just didn’t have dialogues with half-breed Samaritans – an unholy mix of Jewish and hated ancient Assyrian Gentile blood – let alone a man talking with a woman of disrepute who experienced several failed marriages.

Christ had a way of doing the will of God, despite conventional thinking of the time. And a lot of people got their undies in a bundle from it. The disciples, having a front seat to most of Christ’s shenanigans, did a few too many palms to the forehead, believing their Rabbi’s un-orthopraxis was going to make him unpopular. They feared no one would follow him.

Looks like the disciples didn’t quite get that one right.

The Samaritan woman received Jesus as Living Water, having her ultimate needs met by the penultimate Lord of all. The disciples hadn’t quite caught up to this, so fell back on their old ways of physical food and drink to assuage the weirdness happening inside them.

The woman was gushing over with Living Water, becoming a wellspring of good news to her community. Whereas the disciples (eventually becoming an incredible fountain of the gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection) are here nothing but an annoying drip from the kitchen faucet.

A non-descript ethnically suspect woman of dubious character coming to faith was meant by Jesus to open the disciples’ eyes to a new reality: The good news of Christ is meant for the world, not just Jewish men.

The disciples were given the opportunity to participate in the world’s takeover – a mission of bringing the love of God where love wasn’t present, of helping all kinds of people awaken to the deep spirituality within them, of lifting their downcast faces of guilt and shame to see the Living God wanting to bless the world with the body and blood of Jesus.

For this is real food and real drink.

Many believers in Jesus today think they are working hard for the Lord by seeking people for their churches. Yet, the real work is being done by the triune God – the heavenly Father who scans the world and seeks spiritual misfits to bless; the gracious and truthful Son who put hands and feet to that blessing; and the wild Holy Spirit who moves in unpredictable ways – are working infinitely harder for our churches, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

All of our work, no matter how big or small, is made possible by the pre-work of the Holy Trinity. The great Three-in-One has done all the preparations of chopping the onions, mincing the garlic, slicing the carrots, and peeling the potatoes so that we, his followers, can make a savory stew of diverse people sharing a common pot of God’s love and hospitality.

This is the food we know nothing about, and that God knows intimately.

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of the Last Supper

Acts 4:23-31 – Why Not Us?

Hear My Plea by Rochelle Blumenfeld

The apostles Peter and John were arrested for preaching the good news about Jesus. After warning and threatening them to stop doing this, the ruling council of the Jews released them. This was the apostles’ response….

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (NIV)

The early believers in Jesus turned to God in a time of persecution. They found comfort in how God had worked in the past. The ancient church claimed the strength to carry on with speaking about Christ in their everyday lives. When they heard about threats against the apostles, the believers did not get angry or upset about how terrible things were. Instead:

The church decided to concentrate on corporate prayer together.

God is going to do what God is going to do. No government, nation, institution, group of people, or individual person can thwart God’s agenda for the church and world. God is sovereign over everything. We are not. Our place is to participate in God’s agenda through the ministry of prayer and speaking the word of God.

God acted in the past, on behalf of those first believers who came to Jesus and worshiped him with all their hearts. God is still transforming lives. It happened in ancient Jerusalem, throughout the history of the church, and in places today around the world. It can also happen with us.

Prayer is like breathing – inhaling more of God and exhaling less of me. Prayer takes the form of first remembering what God did in the past. Then, we pray specifically for our current situation which connects to the larger purposes of what God is doing. All the while we anticipate God will hear and act, just as has been done throughout history.

Remembrance is an important dimension to biblical prayer. Memory is necessary because we have a tendency toward forgetfulness. The older we get the more we tend to forget (probably because we have so much to remember!). So, continually rehearsing what God has done keeps us grounded in Scripture and tethered to what God can do now.

Remembering God’s saving actions and finding our own personal stories in the grand story of redemption helps us to pray in biblical ways.

The prayer of the early believers was a rehearsal of God’s mighty reputation, from creation to King David, to the redemptive events of Jesus. They reminded God of when, in the past, there was divine intervention. The church collectively quoted Psalm 2 about the Messiah. That psalm declares how the nations of the earth plot in vain because the Lord is the One who shall prevail over every hard circumstance. 

God bends each malevolent action toward the redemption and transformation of humanity. God will work out benevolent plans and purposes, even using people who have no acknowledgment of God. God is not surprised by our troubles and our tough situations.

God is never frustrated by people acting badly, because divine providence and guidance is in control, even if we cannot always perceive it or see it in the moment.

Remembering and rehearsing what God has done in the past helps us realize that, during any trouble, God is in control and will accomplish good plans on this earth. The prayer of the believers in Acts made the connection between what God has done and what they needed.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Interestingly, the believers did not pray for relief from oppression or for God to judge their persecutors. Instead, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God in the middle of their trouble. They rightly discerned that they needed to pray for courage to speak about Jesus. So, the church prayed for God to act in power, for God’s Word to go forth, and for Christ’s Name to be glorified.

God’s response to the prayer was immediate. The place where the church was praying shook. God did exactly what they asked for – filling them up with the Spirit, so that they spoke boldly about Jesus. Just as God empowered people for service in the past, so it was done in the present. What’s more, God will empower us with the same courage.

It is completely normal to simultaneously yearn for bravery while being afraid of getting a prayer for boldness answered. This is more than trying to overcome feelings of awkwardness or shyness. For the early believers, a very real and immediate danger to speaking up about Jesus was present.

It seems to me we need more people who know how to ask good questions and have the patience and attention to listen well and respond thoughtfully. It does no good to simply dispense answers to questions people aren’t asking. Speaking about Jesus does not mean making spiritual cold calls on strangers. And it certainly doesn’t involve being obnoxious or acting like a spiritual pester pup.

Discussing Jesus mostly means speaking casually, one-on-one, with a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member you already know. Too often we might try to fly under the radar and avoid people because we think talking about Jesus is going to be too hard, or out of our league.

Confidence and courage are not telling people what they ought to believe. It is rather like sharing a precious gift with someone. It begins in relationships with people we care about and extends to a relationship with God. It is about discovering God together, and not arm-twisting others to personal ethics or churchgoing.

Yet, it may still all sound too scary. So, maybe we start with this: “Tell me what’s going on.” Then listen. After listening, say, “I’ll pray for you.”  The next time you encounter the person, ask how that situation went.  Express that you’ll pray again. Keep doing it and watch what God will do through you.

When we pray for boldness, and courageously make ourselves available to God, then we are living sacrifices. This is our spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1-2) Who knows? Why not here? Why not now? Why not us? After praying, we might find our meeting places shaken, lives transformed, and everyone filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

God almighty, as you sent the Son, send us into the world with your compelling love. Help us by means of your Spirit, to share your good news of love, forgiveness, justice, peace, compassion, and care. Revive your Church, o Christ. Gracious God, work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. Open our eyes to your mission in the world. Send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all your creation. Amen.