Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.

1 Corinthians 15:50-58 – Keep the Easter(tide) Coming

He Is Not Here by He Qi

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (NRSV)

Throughout my years of conducting Easter Sunday services, I inevitably have someone mention to me after the glorious resurrection celebration how much they enjoy Easter music and cantatas. Then, the conversation oftentimes ends with some sort of statement on how it is too bad we only sing such songs once a year.

Here is my proposal: Then don’t just sing them once a year. Instead, rejoice with resurrection singing and gusto to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the next several weeks.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” – Jesus

John 11:25-26, NRSV

The hopes and expectations of Christians are realized in Christ’s resurrection. The good news of Easter cannot be contained or limited to a single day (Easter Sunday). That is why, according to the Christian Calendar, Easter is only the first of fifty days of celebration called “Eastertide” which leads to the day of Pentecost. Eastertide is a season designed especially for exploring the new life we have in Jesus and the joyful Christian life we can all experience.

Just as we would likely not think of taking only one vacation day in the year for renewal, so it is necessary to take more than one day to enjoy Easter. If nothing else, Eastertide gives believers an opportunity to let Christ’s resurrection percolate in our hearts so that we end up becoming people in real life who exhibit an alive spirit.  And, God knows, we could use much more of that in our congregations and our world!

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”

N. T. Wright

If life, eternal life, and the necessity of being alive are all needs for us, then it only makes sense that we would want to take advantage of what Eastertide has to offer: A deliberate look at Christ’s resurrection, exploring its implications and impact for us. Simply assuming we all know about resurrection will not do, any more than my wife simply assuming I love her without looking her straight in the eye and telling her so. 

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). Without an Eastertide, there’s a sin-as-usual kind of approach to life with a sort of shoulder shrug that says, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?”  Instead, we have the hope of life everlasting because Christ has risen from death. We have the hope of individual renewal, corporate revitalization, and worldwide revival because there is a risen Savior.

Spring is the time of year which can give shape to the rest of our seasons. Christ’s resurrection gives us a reason to rejoice, hope, persevere, and serve gladly, knowing that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. 

Easter is not over. It is just beginning. 

Therefore, throwing parties for Jesus is in order. Celebrating life, new life, is not only fun but biblical. Maybe some people outside the church look at Christians as uptight and repressed because we are not throwing the best parties and celebrations. 

After all, we have the highest reason possible to celebrate loudly with great passion and joy. Our joy can lead us to paint the town red, whoop it up, raise the roof; splurge, and be effusive with our worship. Christians, full of redemption and reconciliation, break out of their staid existence to hail King Jesus not just today but all through Eastertide because Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

Almighty God, who through your only begotten son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Thank you for giving me a reason to celebrate with joy my Lord’s resurrection. May I be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit and give the best party in the neighborhood; through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Psalm 84 – The Joy of Worship

Every now and then I like taking a psalm and doing my own loose contemporary translation of the text (just so you know, I’ve had training in the Hebrew language, so this isn’t weird for me, or for you!). I find this exercise to be exhilarating and helpful for my own soul. I hope you find this to be useful for you, as well. 

Today’s psalm talks about the temple. I have contemporized it for the Christian who enjoys fellowship with God in the many places where the Lord can be found. I encourage you to read it over once, then carefully read it again, prayerfully. Do it both times out loud. The psalms are meant to be prayed, and they are meant to be said aloud with flavor!

How lovely are all the places where you dwell,
    powerful and mighty God of the numerous heavenly forces!

The depths of my soul long, even yearn,
    for the intimate backyard gatherings where Yahweh dwells.
My heart and my body, my whole self
    shout out loud for joy to the living God!

Yes, the lowly insignificant mother sparrow has also found a home with God;
    the swallow has, too, found herself a homey nest
    where she can lay her young beside your divine activity.
    Immense Lord of the numerous heavenly forces, my king, my God,

    You are so big that the lowliest of creatures find shelter in you!
Those who live within your sacred space are genuinely happy;
    they can’t stop praising you constantly and incessantly!

Those who put their energy in you are truly content;
    a one-way road to you is in their hearts.
As they walk through all kinds of dry hard circumstances
    they end up making them like a spring of living water.
    Yes, even problems become like a gentle rain of blessing.
The biggest of dilemmas become manageable,
    as they see the supremacy of God in it all.
Mighty Lord God of the numerous heavenly forces,
    hear my prayer to you;
    listen closely, O ancient God of my spiritual ancestors!

You are our great protective shield, God;
    pay close attention to your chosen one!

Better is one single solitary day in your backyard gathering
    than a billion days anywhere else!
I would prefer to park cars out in the front yard of God’s house
    than live comfortably in the palatial hangouts of the ungodly!
The Lord is like the brightness of a warm summer day,

and even the suntan lotion protecting me; God is all that!
    God is full of crazy grace and unspeakable glory.
The Lord gives— and doesn’t withhold — good things
    to those who walk with integrity of heart beside him.
Powerful Lord of the numerous heavenly forces,
    those who trust in you are truly giddy with joy!

Divine presence makes all the difference in the world. To be with God, to sense the Lord’s company, and to enjoy Divine favor brings deep satisfaction and contentment within a world of great dissatisfaction and discontent.

True beauty is found with the Author of the beautiful. Love motivates the pilgrimage toward God. The non-judgmental presence of the Lord provides us with a place of security, peace, and rest. Indeed, the nearness of God changes everything. It transforms our present circumstances from drudgery and despondency to opportunities for God to show up and show off divine power.

God, the heavenly king, and commander of heavenly forces chooses to dwell among us. The Lord’s ear is attentive to each person. The connection between God and God’s people is inseparable. This, then, is the very place where trust is engendered. Placing faith in a God who cares, listens, and acts blesses everyone.

Today, God abides with us because of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. God’s presence has the effect of bringing people together and calming all fears. God’s eye is on the sparrow, which means the Lord is always watching with care and concern for all creation, especially humanity.

Almighty God, merciful heavenly Father, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness, kindness, and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love shown through the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Give us such an awareness of your divine presence, that with truly thankful hearts our lives might be an offering of praise in both speech and action. We trust you, gracious God, and give ourselves to your service. We choose to walk with you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow, sung by Selah

Acts 5:33-42 – Worthy to Suffer Disgrace

The Apostles by Russian artist Peter Gorban (1923-1995)

When the council members heard this [God raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree] they became furious and wanted to kill the apostles. One council member, a Pharisee and teacher of the Law named Gamaliel, well-respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be taken outside for a few moments. He said, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you intend to do to these people. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and some four hundred men joined him. After he was killed, all his followers scattered, and nothing came of that. Afterward, at the time of the census, Judas the Galilean appeared and got some people to follow him in a revolt. He was killed too, and all his followers scattered far and wide. Here is my recommendation in this case: Distance yourselves from these men. Let them go! If their plan or activity is of human origin, it will end in ruin. If it originates with God, you will not be able to stop them. Instead, you would actually find yourselves fighting God!” The council was convinced by his reasoning. After calling the apostles back, they had them beaten. They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, then let them go. The apostles left the council rejoicing because they had been regarded as worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name. Every day they continued to teach and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, both in the temple and in houses. (CEB)

People talk about things which are important to them. Even quiet and introverted individuals will speak at length, barely taking a breath, if you get them on a topic for which they are passionate about. 

Today’s New Testament lesson has the Apostles speaking incessantly about someone they love to talk about.  In fact, the original disciples of Jesus chattered so much about who they loved, Jesus, that the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) wanted to shut them up by killing them. But a wise member of the council saw the foolishness of this approach and persuaded the Sanhedrin against it. Instead, the council gave the Apostles a thorough whipping, warned them to stop talking all the time about Jesus, and let them go.

There is a time to listen, and there is a time to speak.  The Apostles could not keep silent.  They considered their beating an act of solidarity with their Lord Jesus and went right on talking. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

The joy of knowing Jesus – crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again – is such a rich experience that one cannot help but be a chatterbox with joy about him. Even in the face of persecution, the ecstasy of knowing Christ transcends physical pain and suffering.

Today, there are places throughout the world where the scenario of continual discourse about Jesus is taking place with joy, despite the presence of persecution.  There are also places, mainly in America, where talking about Jesus does not even take place in the church building where believers gather to worship, let alone out in the public square.

One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Western church is that one can talk freely and openly about the weather, the latest sports, political happenings, and get away with never speaking or dialoging about Jesus.

The Apostle Peter, having learned the hard way, exhorted believers in his epistle that suffering is inevitable. So, the real issue is whether one suffers because of Christ or because of their own wrongheaded decisions. If others reject us, let it be for holiness, love, and hospitality – and not for babbling a bunch of unbiblical nonsense. Peter said:

Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude… Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice because you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 5:1, 12-16, NIV)

Today, allow two different emotions to arise and sway your prayers and speech.  First, allow the joy of the Lord Jesus to fill you and give you freedom to speak his Name and the grace he gives.  Second, allow a sorrowful lament to come forth from your heart, and speak it out loud before God concerning the great silence of the church in the West.

Loving Lord Jesus, you save completely those who come to you by faith.  Thank you for the work of forgiveness and healing that takes place in your Name everyday in the world.  Yet, I also lament the many confessing believers in your Name who never speak of the good news in their everyday conversations, even within the church.  Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy and grant us peace.  Amen.