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.

Amos 9:7-15 – A Promise of Restoration

“Are you Israelites more important to me
    than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord.
“I brought Israel out of Egypt,
    but I also brought the Philistines from Crete
    and led the Arameans out of Kir.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.
But all the sinners will die by the sword—
    all those who say, ‘Nothing bad will happen to us.’

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory.
And Israel will possess what is left of Edom
    and all the nations I have called to be mine.”
The Lord has spoken,
    and he will do these things.

“The time will come,” says the Lord,
“when the grain and grapes will grow faster
    than they can be harvested.
Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel
    will drip with sweet wine!
I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God.
(New Living Translation)

Guilt

Doom and hope, judgment and grace, suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. The great sin of Israel which warranted divine wrath was not only that they trampled on the poor and needy. On top of it all, they saw nothing wrong with their way of life. 

This profound lack of awareness, rooted in the spiritual blindness of greed, is what led to judgment. It would take the form of having the Assyrian Empire come, seize the land, and take the people away to a place where they would have no chance to oppress others. Sadly, death would come to many.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Dan Allender

The sin of oppressing others and believing there’s nothing wrong with it comes with severe consequences. The people relied too much on their ethnicity. The ancient Israelites wrongly assumed that because they were the people of the covenant, this somehow inoculated them from disaster. Their belief in Jewish exceptionalism was their downfall.

Grace

Yet, all would not be an endless gloom. The Lord will not destroy completely. God’s anger lasts for a moment. However, God’s grace lasts forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come because of God’s mercy. 

Yes, God pronounces judgment when it is warranted. But God also makes and keeps promises to people. In our lesson for today, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the people through rebuilding ruined cities and letting them inhabit them once again.

God steps in and graciously acts on behalf of all people because that is what God does. We might get the notion in our heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or to make a point. In my line of work, it is common to hear people express the idea they are under divine punishment because of personal illness or hard circumstances. 

God, however, acts independently out of a vast storehouse of righteousness and mercy. The Lord maintains holy decrees while showing grace to the undeserving. The nation of Israel, in the days of the prophet Amos, deserved only judgment, not grace. 

It seems to me God would have been completely justified to never restore or renew a recalcitrant people. Yet, God’s grace overwhelms and swallows human sin. Try as you might to understand grace, you will end up befuddled. That’s because grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only the punishing fire of hell.

Gratitude

The height of grace and the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel (from a Christian perspective) came through a baby and a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with divine free love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. 

So, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Receive the gift of gracious forgiveness, merciful love, and divine peace. Look ahead and see there is hope on the horizon. Give thanks for God’s indescribable kindness.

Merciful God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. 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.

Mark 6:30-34 – The Ethics of Rest and Work

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So, they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he began teaching them many things. (NIV)

The Protestant work ethic is a real thing.

Although the German sociologist, Max Weber, coined the term, the idea has been around since the Reformation. Since I’m an old white Protestant minister with Northern European heritage, I can testify firsthand that phrases like “quiet place,” “get some rest,” and “solitary place” aren’t in my tribe’s vocabulary.

The typical understanding of sin in the Protestant work ethic is laziness, sloth, procrastination, and disorder. Heck, even sleeping and eating are viewed more as necessary evils than healthy practices. Hard industrious work is considered a high value. All other activities fall underneath it.

So, it is not surprising that today’s Gospel lesson rarely gets attention from anybody, especially with people who share my heritage. Yet, there it is in Holy Scripture for all to read. And I can’t think of any better or sage advice to give my fellow Protestant Christians as “get some rest.”

Having heard my share of folks, after me insisting they practice some self-care, say goofy things like, “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die,” I now go full-frontal retort with my own words that go something like, “And that death will happen a lot sooner than you think, if you don’t obey the Lord through solitude and rest.”

Moving from guilt to grace.

Although I know better, I often find myself burning the candle at both ends. Its far too easy for me to forget eating lunch because of work. And I sometimes catch myself wanting to justify to others the reason for putting my feet up for a few minutes. Make no mistake about it: The Protestant work ethic is mostly motivated by guilt, not grace.

Perhaps we need to say the phrase of Jesus out loud, using several different versions of the Bible. Go ahead. Say the following, slowly… gently… as if Christ himself were speaking directly to you….

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (NIV)

“Come, let’s take a break and find a secluded place where you can rest a while.” (TPT)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (NRSV)

“Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while.” (NET)

“Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (NLT)

“Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

Jesus (Mark 6:31, CEV)

I want us to see what a gracious invitation we are being extended by our Lord. This is the same Lord who said:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

At odds with Christian discipleship.

It is high time we see that much of the Protestant work ethic is at odds with Christian discipleship. Although the ethic rightly lifts the need for faith to be expressed in diligence, discipline, and frugality, it elevates hard work as a visible sign of God’s grace. So, ironically, people end up working their tails off to prove the grace in their lives. And it has created a false self for many who are fearful of being seen by others as slothful and irreligious.

For example, I once had an elderly parishioner who often told me how little sleep she got, the part-time job she held, and the many volunteer opportunities she regularly engaged. I thought it odd that an older person could truly do so much without much rest. And my hunch proved spot on. Turns out she fudged on how many hours she really worked and slept, sometimes outright lying to me.

This lady felt compelled to prove to me, her Pastor, that she was on the straight and narrow, doing the things a good Protestant Christian does. What is sad about this is that the stories are multiplied with many other dear people obsessively relating to me untrue facts about themselves so that I will accept and affirm their superior religiosity expressed in hard work.

However, the axis of the world does not spin on effort and working harder but on grace and love. Behind all the posturing and continually striving for an almost superhuman work ethic are terribly insecure folk who need to rest in the grace of God in Christ.

Embracing both work and rest.

None of this is to say that work is somehow bad. No, work is inherently good. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to work it and tend to it. We need not denigrate work to emphasize rest. Whereas you might doth protest that younger generations today have no idea what hard work is, I will pushback by saying they intuitively see the foolishness of the Protestant work ethic and want to steer clear of it.

Millennials, I argue, are ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They just need a bit of direction from us older generations. And that guidance cannot be in the form of disparaging them. Rather it needs to be gracious, forging real mentoring relationships which are helpful.

So, let’s get a hold of what Jesus did: He worked, yes, worked, to get his disciples to a place of rest and refreshment. Christ wanted nothing to do with compulsively working without proper care of body and soul. Rest must come before work. We do well to follow his example.

Be present, O merciful God, and give us refreshment through the anxieties of the day and the silent hours of the night so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.