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.

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.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

Golgotha by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

The Lord says, “See, my servant will act wisely.
    People will greatly honor and respect him.
Many people were shocked when they saw him.
    His appearance was so damaged he did not look like a man;
    his form was so changed they could barely tell he was human.
But now he will surprise many nations.
    Kings will be amazed and shut their mouths.
They will see things they had not been told about him,

    and they will understand things they had not heard.”

Who would have believed what we heard?
    Who saw the Lord’s power in this?
He grew up like a small plant before the Lord,
    like a root growing in a dry land.
He had no special beauty or form to make us notice him;
    there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him.
He was hated and rejected by people.
    He had much pain and suffering.
People would not even look at him.
    He was hated, and we didn’t even notice him.

But he took our suffering on him
    and felt our pain for us.
We saw his suffering
    and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did;
    he was crushed for the evil we did.
The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,
    and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep;
    each of us has gone his own way.
But the Lord has put on him the punishment
    for all the evil we have done.

He was beaten down and punished,
    but he didn’t say a word.
He was like a lamb being led to be killed.
    He was quiet, as a sheep is quiet while its wool is being cut;
    he never opened his mouth.
Men took him away roughly and unfairly.
    He died without children to continue his family.
He was put to death;
    he was punished for the sins of my people.
He was buried with wicked men,
    and he died with the rich.
He had done nothing wrong,
    and he had never lied.

But it was the Lord who decided
    to crush him and make him suffer.
    The Lord made his life a penalty offering,
but he will still see his descendants and live a long life.
    He will complete the things the Lord wants him to do.
“After his soul suffers many things,
    he will see life and be satisfied.
My good servant will make many people right with God;
    he will carry away their sins.
For this reason I will make him a great man among people,
    and he will share in all things with those who are strong.
He willingly gave his life
    and was treated like a criminal.
But he carried away the sins of many people
    and asked forgiveness for those who sinned.” (NCV)

Le peintre et le Christ (The Painter and the Christ) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

With all the suffering in this world due to ongoing diseases, natural disasters, moral distress, and so much more, it might seem awkward that Christians everywhere would observe a day called “Good” Friday. 

Considering the hard circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” might appear cruel and out of touch with the world. Even for Christians, at first glance, “Good Friday” can seem a bit oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man. 

Some would argue that Christ is no longer on the cross and we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and victory. No need for all this suffering stuff. Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday. Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus. 

For Christians everywhere, this day is an incredibly good day because the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world. On this day followers of Jesus remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of the redeeming work of the cross.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross. Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross. 

On this day, Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him. Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and the redemption of all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression today. It is also appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin. There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus. Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished. In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

Mount Calvary by William H. Johnson (1901-1970)

With such profound meaning, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar. Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it is not. The cross is not a popular subject. Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something so bloody and sad.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science. The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much violence and sacrifice) might seem appealing yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present. Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.”

Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”

Nicene creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’  He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.  Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges. Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning. Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all suffering and wholesale hard circumstances only make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with cross of Jesus Christ.

So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil. Let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Psalm 70 – Wednesday of Holy Week

Christ in the Garden of Olives by French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

God! Please hurry to my rescue!
    God, come quickly to my side!
Those who are out to get me—
    let them fall all over themselves.
Those who relish my downfall—
    send them down a blind alley.
Give them a taste of their own medicine,
    those gossips off clucking their tongues.

Let those on the hunt for you
    sing and celebrate.
Let all who love your saving way
    say over and over, “God is mighty!”

But I’ve lost it. I’m wasted.
    God—quickly, quickly!
Quick to my side, quick to my rescue!
    God, don’t lose a minute. (MSG)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that today’s psalm is a plea from a desperate person in a desperate situation of life and death. Help is needed, not in some future time, but immediately!

I don’t know if you have ever been in such a stressful and dangerous situation in which all you could say is “Help! Help me!” The abject feeling of helplessness is palpable and just plain awful. The sense there is nothing you can do to improve your circumstance other than some sort of merciful divine intervention is more than unnerving. Its downright hard to breathe, let alone trying to cry out for rescue.

It seems the psalmist was in a position where there were people getting a twisted sense of joy over the misfortune of others. Its as if they were delighting in the confusion and vulnerability of those unable to stop what is happening.

In the throes of such stress and danger the psalmist wants the evil turned back on the wicked. He wants such persons off his back – to have God hunt them like they are hunting the poor and needy who have no ability to resist.

It makes sense this psalm is short, just a few verses. Long prayers aren’t necessarily better. Prayers can be short, especially when it is a frantic cry for God’s help. There is nothing in Holy Scripture that dictates how long or short prayer ought to be. “Help!” just might be one of the best prayers we can pray. One little word. That’s all it takes.

It also makes sense to me that this is an honest prayer. When in the throes of some horrible situation, all pretension goes out the window. Honest heartfelt prayers are the best kind of prayer. If we are hurting badly enough, boldness comes quickly to the tip of our tongues. I once had a kidney stone (which was extremely painful!). I walked in a bent over position into the Emergency Department of a hospital and yelled at the first staff person I saw, saying, “I want help, NOW!

To confess our great need to a God who listens might just be the best kind of theology we could ever express. In such a terrible place as the psalmist was, there is no thought to keeping up appearances. There is only an unfiltered expression of need. Our prayers can be earnest and urgent.

Prayer can be short, honest, and urgent because emergent situations require it. So, what do you do when you feel desperate? How do you handle your emotions? Where do you go for help?

In this Holy Week we are reminded that Jesus looked to the Father for help. In the worst of circumstances – facing ridicule, torture, and a horrible death – the Lord Jesus let the psalms shape his own prayers of desperation while under severe stress and duress:

“The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9)

“They hated me without a cause.” (John 15:24; Psalm 69:4)

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38; Psalm 42:5-6)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:16)

There is a God who understands our plight. Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, has gone before us in the way of suffering and knows what it is like to experience the agony and anguish of evil’s weight. He is our great high priest, the one who can intercede effectively and compassionately for us in our great times of need:

 Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So, let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16, MSG)

May you find in Jesus the help you so desperately need. Amen.