Acts 13:16-25 – The Motivation of Ministry

Paul speaking in the synagogue, a 12th century Byzantine mosaic

Paul got up. He motioned with his hand and said:

People of Israel, and everyone else who worships God, listen! The God of Israel chose our ancestors, and he let our people prosper while they were living in Egypt. Then with his mighty power he led them out, and for about forty years he took care of them in the desert. He destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan and gave their land to our people. All this happened in about 450 years.

Then God gave our people judges until the time of the prophet Samuel, but the people demanded a king. So, for forty years God gave them King Saul, the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Later, God removed Saul and let David rule in his place. God said about him, “David the son of Jesse is the kind of person who pleases me most! He does everything I want him to do.”

God promised that someone from David’s family would come to save the people of Israel, and that one is Jesus. But before Jesus came, John was telling everyone in Israel to turn back to God and be baptized. Then, when John’s work was almost done, he said, “Who do you people think I am? Do you think I am the Promised One? He will come later, and I am not good enough to untie his sandals.” (CEV)

In the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had the practice of traveling from city to city and attending the local synagogue services. It was customary to have a time in the worship when a word of encouragement could be offered from folks in the congregation. Paul consistently took those opportunities to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” 

Søren Kierkegaard

Paul’s conversion to Christianity totally altered his motivation. Jesus was everything to him. Jesus is what got him up in the morning. Jesus is who sustained him through his days. Jesus was who Paul thought about when he went to sleep at night. Paul was unabashedly Christo-centric in all he said and did.

As for me, the spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. As a Christian, I believe all spiritual care begins and ends with Jesus. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting the divine in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, all persons on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. So, my identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care. 

What is more, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. Christ entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and the power of touch.  Christ was able to listen to others because he first listened to the Father. Jesus was present to others because he was present with the Father. Jesus Christ gave love to others with the love he enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit. 

By the wounds of Christ, we are healed. Paul knew this firsthand. He needed a boatload of emotional and spiritual healing from his guilt and shame as a persecutor of faith before his conversion. Paul discovered in Christ the grace of healing, both body and soul.  

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. The Apostle Paul had a doozy of a life story to tell. Coupled with his keen intellect and training, Paul could be very persuasive. Paul’s ministry, emulating the life of Christ, was not to force the gospel obnoxiously and belligerently onto others but to pastorally respond to everyone he encountered. Both Paul and Jesus confronted and confounded folks with incredible love.

The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.

karl barth

Every person, without exception, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of Godlikeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. One of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from mutual seeing and being seen, reciprocal speaking and listening, granting one another mutual assistance, and doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people – which is why Paul was intensely personal and relational in his missionary ministry. Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Paul always traveled with others.

Christian ministry is a symbiotic relationship between the servant and the served, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do what I do, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ, and I have a hunch it was the same for Paul.

Loving God, the One who cares and saves, enable me, like your servant Paul, to speak peace, be hospitable, heal the sick, proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, not take rejection personally, and let you do your work of changing lives and bringing them into the dance of the Trinity with Christ and your Spirit. Amen.

Acts 17:10-15 – Being Open-Minded

Frank Zappa quote

That same night the believers sent Paul and Silas to another city named Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was true. The result was that many of them believed, including many important Greek women and men.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was telling people God’s message in Berea, they came there too. They upset the people and made trouble. So, the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Those who went with Paul took him to the city of Athens. They returned with a message for Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as they could. (ERV)

Everywhere the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys he experienced both acceptance and opposition. Determined to spread the good news of Christ’s redeeming work, Paul found a receptive audience and was able to establish churches. However, by doing this, he also upset the religious status quo wherever he went, as well. As a result, there were times when Paul and his colleagues needed to steal out of town before an angry mob could get their hands on him. Sometimes, the furious cabal got a hold of him, and Paul forever carried the scars of those beatings on his body.

So, it must have been a refreshing experience for Paul to arrive in the city of Berea (located at the base of the Olympian Mountains in southwestern Macedonia) and discover a different spirit than he typically found in other places – a willingness to investigate, scrutinize, and grapple with the message presented.

To spiritually thrive and flourish in this life we all must embrace the noble character of remaining open-minded with a teachable spirit. Just as the body grows, changes, and matures over time, so the human spirit does the same. This means there is continual spiritual development. To become closed-minded and believe all questions are answered and settled is to cut off oneself from truth and reality.

The Apostle Paul, I believe, is a good model of what it takes to be open-minded and a lifelong learner. The following are some ways he kept alive to spiritual truth:

Paul found his motivation. He went on missionary journeys because he wanted to make Christ known in places where he wasn’t. “It doesn’t matter if people are civilized and educated, or if they are uncivilized and uneducated. I must tell the good news to everyone. That’s why I am eager….” (Romans 1:13-14, CEB)

Paul went to new places. Getting stuck in a rut comes from never doing anything new or going to new places. We don’t have to be missionaries like Paul to do some movement and discover personally unexplored places, both literally and spiritually. Habits and routines are good. Sometimes we just need to create new ones so that we see a different perspective and have new experiences. The inability to see another’s viewpoint comes from an unwillingness to entertain any kind of change.

Paul avoided speculation. He did not superimpose his own experiences onto others. Paul was remarkably open to people everywhere he went, instead of being afraid and expecting trouble and/or abuse. In other words, the Bereans were open to Paul because Paul was open to them. Paul avoided looking at them as Thessalonians or Philippians, both places where he got into loads of trouble just before coming to Berea. A contemporary way of stating Paul’s attitude and practice is that he was free of prejudice and discrimination.

Furthermore, notice the intellectual characteristics of the Berean people:

  • They were curious to hear what Paul thought.
  • They were able to have their ideas challenged.
  • They didn’t get angry when new ideas were presented.
  • They practiced both intellectual humility and mental empathy.
  • They believed Paul had a right to share his arguments, beliefs, and thoughts.

Today, in our intellectually and politically polarized world, far too many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So, they are unwilling to wrestle with spirituality by eliminating all mystery from their religion. When that happens, oppression is born. These are the folks who could not tolerate Paul’s ideas and gave him such a hard time. By rejecting alternative ideas that might challenge the status quo, people may be able to minimize uncertainty and risk – or at least their perception of risk – yet, the closing of their minds to other’s thoughts opens them to abusing the bodies of those same people.

When people are intellectually and spiritually proud, they wrongheadedly believe that they already know all there is to know, and so, they refuse to listen. At best, this limits the potential for learning; at worst, it forms a cognitive bias which blinds them to their own ignorance and blunts their ability for compassion. Instead, it is imperative we be humbler about our knowledge and that there is always more to learn.

Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom. As the source of all light, enlighten our spirits. Pour out on us the spirit of understanding so that our hearts and minds may be opened. Amen.

Romans 15:14-21 – Paul the Missionary

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev
Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

My brothers and sisters, I know without a doubt that you are full of goodness and have all the knowledge you need. So, you are certainly able to counsel each other. But I have written to you very openly about some things that I wanted you to remember. I did this because God gave me this special gift: to be a servant of Christ Jesus for those who are not Jews. I serve like a priest whose duty it is to tell God’s Good News. He gave me this work so that you non-Jewish people could be an offering that he will accept—an offering made holy by the Holy Spirit.

That is why I feel so good about what I have done for God in my service to Christ Jesus. I will not talk about anything I did myself. I will talk only about what Christ has done with me in leading the non-Jewish people to obey God. They have obeyed him because of what I have said and done. And they obeyed him because of the power of the miraculous signs and wonders that happened—all because of the power of God’s Spirit. I have told people the Good News about Christ in every place from Jerusalem to Illyricum. And so, I have finished that part of my work. I always want to tell the Good News in places where people have never heard of Christ. I do this because I don’t want to build on the work that someone else has already started. But as the Scriptures say,

“Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard about him will understand.” (ERV)

Paul was an Apostle – a person commissioned by God for a specific purpose. His task was to go to the Gentiles – non-Jewish people. Although a Jew himself, Paul was sent as the missionary to places where Gentiles were the dominate culture. Through the Apostle Peter, and then Paul, the good news of Jesus spread to persons that were beforehand considered unreachable. Paul viewed himself as having no limits as to who could hear and respond to the gospel of new life in Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul understood himself as standing between heaven and hell, interceding, and pleading on behalf of people in need.

It is quite likely there are persons in our sphere of influence for whom we think would never respond to the message of Christ’s redemption. In these dog days of summer’s ordinary time in which we may be just trying to beat the heat; and, we might see family that we typically don’t throughout the rest of the year; it could be easy to lose sight that attending a virtual meeting, family gathering, and/or interaction with a person outdoors, there are those who need the kind of life which Jesus invites us to – and we will never know if God is wooing them to himself unless we share life with them.

Perhaps we need to see ourselves as Paul did – standing in the gap and always trying to find ways to speak good news to people who need deliverance from empty ways of life. The cousin or uncle, co-worker or friend, neighbor, or new acquaintance, can be forgotten by us as to their very real need to discover faith and the spirituality which resides within.  We, my friends, are the conduit that God has ordained to bring the life-giving message to people all around us – people for whom we might have already written off as unreachable.

Sometimes the Apostle Paul gets a bad rap as moving beyond the bounds of his apostolic authority in dedicating his life to reaching the non-Jewish person, as if Gentiles were not really on the radar of Jesus. Yet, Paul took pains to demonstrate biblically that his mission was really God’s mission. Indeed, Paul did not fabricate including Jew and Gentile together as one people of God. Romans 15 is filled with Old Testament quotes pertaining to God’s agenda that all peoples of the earth would come and worship together.

It has always been God’s vision to restore humanity, Jewish and Gentile alike, to a life-giving place of beauty and joy in the Garden.

So, Paul had a healthy pride in his work as an Apostle sent from God to the task of reaching the vast numbers of non-Jewish people. I sit here today, two millennia later, the spiritual progeny of the Apostle’s great effort. Because Paul kept pioneering new churches, pushing ever farther into places which knew little to none about Jesus, and being concerned for people very different from himself, Christians today enjoy a rich legacy of faith and works to draw upon in our own lives.

Yes, as an historian I am quite aware of the complicated history between the Jewish people and their Gentile neighbors. I perhaps know more than the average bear about how the Church has far too often brought harm and not help to the world. Yet, this in no way mitigates the incredible new life which has occurred for so many people and cultures throughout the past two-thousand years of Christian history. In fact, in the light of today’s New Testament lesson, it behooves us Christians to establish gracious and loving connections with our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as all of humanity. Their pain of persecution and difficulty through the centuries is our pain, as well.

May the power of God’s Spirit come upon us all. May we all become a community of priests and prophets proclaiming peace, love, and joy – the life we are all meant to experience and share together.

We praise you, O God, for the ministry and success of your servant, the Apostle Paul, through whom we who are Gentiles owe our own faith and calling.  Grant us a vision like his, the conviction and commitment to pursue it, and the grace which confirms and prospers it.  Amen.