Acts 20:17-38 – A Ministry of Tears

Paul sent a message for the church leaders at Ephesus to come and meet with him. When they got there, he said:

You know everything I did during the time I was with you when I first came to Asia. Some of the Jews plotted against me and caused me a lot of sorrow and trouble. But I served the Lord and was humble. When I preached in public or taught in your homes, I didn’t hold back from telling anything that would help you. I told Jews and Gentiles to turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

I don’t know what will happen to me in Jerusalem, but I must obey God’s Spirit and go there.In every city I visit, I am told by the Holy Spirit that I will be put in jail and will be in trouble in Jerusalem. But I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I finish the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to do. And that work is to tell the good news about God’s great kindness.

I have gone from place to place, preaching to you about God’s kingdom, but now I know that none of you will ever see me again. I tell you today that I am no longer responsible for any of you! I have told you everything God wants you to know. Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.

I know that after I am gone, others will come like fierce wolves to attack you. Some of your own people will tell lies to win over the Lord’s followers. Be on your guard! Remember how day and night for three years I kept warning you with tears in my eyes.

I now place you in God’s care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God’s people. I have never wanted anyone’s money or clothes. You know how I have worked with my own hands to make a living for myself and my friends. By everything I did, I showed how you should work to help everyone who is weak. Remember that our Lord Jesus said, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.”

After Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. Everyone cried and hugged and kissed him. They were especially sad because Paul had told them, “You will never see me again.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Apparently, real men do cry. 

When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way. Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other. Paul remembered he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person with tears in his eyes. 

And when Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time, there were a great many tears both with him and the congregation.

Paul was faithful to declare all the will of God to the church. Whatever the people needed, he worked diligently to spiritually support them. The Ephesian church needed a good cry, a sort of emotional baptism to help cleanse and prepare them for life apart from their beloved founder.

So, Paul, never one to be afraid of his emotions, allowed his own tears to flow freely. Those tears were not ancillary to his ministry; they were an integral part of it.

One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers of the Enlightenment project, with its sheer intellectual rationalism, is that over the past several centuries, we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick. 

The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, provide them the correct information, teach them sound doctrine and right behavior, that they will have everything they need and do the right thing. 

When you get to heaven, try telling that to Paul, and see where it gets you.

Any Christian tradition which excludes the vital element of emotions is a truncated spirituality. Even more, I would argue it is downright heretical. If we are devoted to emulating and following our Lord, then just as he wept, we will weep, too.

People everywhere desperately need some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps we all need a good old fashioned cry today.

Weep over lost persons locked in a prison of guilt and shame who need deliverance and new life.  

Shed some tears over believers floundering in their faith, mistakenly believing they must keep a stiff upper lip and eschew their grief and sadness.

Bawl and let your eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have died in faith, leaving a massive spiritual hole in our hearts.

And cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God. Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain, sit with your emotions, and find the mercy of God.

Gracious God, you have created us all in your image and likeness. Help us so to connect with your own emotional constellation that none of us will be stifled in faith but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church. Amen.

1 Peter 4:7-19 – Show Hospitality without Grumbling

The end of all things is near. Therefore, be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

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, inasmuch as 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. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will, should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (New International Version)

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Henri Nouwen

One of the most practical and biblical ways of demonstrating love is through hospitality. Hospitality, at its heart, is an invitation to come into my home and into my life. It is a ministry of acceptance, encouragement, restoration, and healing.  The loving work of hospitality “covers a multitude of sins” through the power of influence. When we have face-to-face conversations around the table, it prevents us from engaging in sins that would otherwise be committed if left to ourselves.

Because the end of all things is near, we need our wits about us through a determined focus on prayer, love, and hospitality. The word “hospitality” literally means, “love of the stranger.” I invite someone whom I do not know very well into my home and befriend them. This is what Jesus did for us. Although we were all estranged from God and on the outside, Jesus came to eat with us.

“Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.” (Revelation 3:20, GNT)

Jesus invites us into the life of God. We are to invite others into our lives. Jesus has so closely identified with his people that when we practice hospitality, we are inviting Jesus in. In fact, we may not realize that some people we host are angels: 

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2, NIV)

Inviting another person into my home and heart takes time and effort. It may even create some suffering. Doing it without grumbling is a necessity. In an ideal world we always receive something back for our work of hospitality – an invitation from the other person, or, at least, a simple thank you. That does not always happen and cannot be the driving reason why we are generous.

Hospitality is a work of love which originates from a heart touched by the hospitality of God. Our earthly hospitality is a form of saying “thank you” to God for his grace to us. Complaints break into the house like unwanted burglars when we expect to receive, and do not. If you receive another person as though they were Christ himself, grumbling will likely be far from you. Instead, there will be rejoicing over the opportunity to serve Jesus.

Jesus said, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. And anyone who welcomes me also welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40, CEV)

In the New Testament world, a concrete expression of love to other believers in Jesus was providing food and shelter for Christians traveling throughout the Roman Empire. Often, the traveling strangers were itinerant evangelists spreading the message of the gospel from place to place. 

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth. (3 John 5-8, NIV)

At other times, believers were deprived of necessities due to occasional waves of persecution. The people Peter addressed were mostly Jewish Christians. As they faced persecution in Jerusalem, they fled to geographical places dominated by pagan Gentiles. As refugees, they were often poor and needy. The townspeople where they went were not hospitable. So, they had to rely on the love and hospitality of those believers they could connect with who had the means to help.

Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEB) 

There is a great need for hospitality in our world.  Many American’s circle of friends is shrinking. According to one study the number of people who said they had no one to talk to about important matters has more than doubled in the past 10 years. 35 million Americans now live alone (which is 28% of all households). 

Hospitality cuts both ways for us. We are to invite the lonely into our hearts and homes; and the lonely are to invite others into their hearts and homes, instead of waiting for somebody to just show up.

Food is to hospitality what weightlifting is to bodybuilders; you really need food, meals, and the sharing that goes with it to make a difference in another’s life. In biblical times, eating a meal together was a sacred affair.  To have another person in your house, sitting around your table, communicated acceptance, care, and friendship. That is why the religious leaders had such difficulty with Jesus eating with “sinners.” Jesus was unequivocally loving and accepting of such persons.

No matter our gifts and abilities, each one of us can be hospitable. Something mystical happens at a dinner table that does not happen anywhere else – it opens the door to true community.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, NRSV)

For the Christian, eating and ingesting bread and wine serves as a tangible way of understanding what life is to be like. We take Jesus into the depths of our lives. We ingest him, that is, we engage in an intimate relationship whereby the two of us can never be separated.

We are meant for life together, to enjoy eating and drinking together. True life is sharing both our resources and our hearts with one another. 

Loving God, thank you for your generosity. I am a stranger in this world, yet you invite me to be your guest. You lavishly offer me your hospitality and welcome me into your family. You invite me to share in the abundance of your kingdom. Help me remember that when I offer hospitality to others, I am receiving Christ into my home. Gracious God, I open my heart to those who are wounded; those who have wounded me; those who are outcasts; and to all who are searching. I want my everyday ordinary life to please you. I am grateful that there is always room at your Table, through Jesus, my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 23 – God Is Bigger Than Your Valley

Photo by Temo Berishvili on Pexels.com

You, Lord, are my shepherd.
    I will never be in need.
     You let me rest in fields
    of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
    and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,
    and you lead me
    along the right paths.
 I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
    and your shepherd’s rod
    makes me feel safe.

 You treat me to a feast,
    while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
    and you fill my cup
    until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
    each day of my life,
    and I will live forever
    in your house, Lord. (CEV)

Psalm 23 is a familiar place in Holy Scripture, even for many who are not followers of God.  Far from just a funeral prayer, this psalm contains a singular and timeless message:

No matter the circumstance, nor whatever the need, God is enough. The Lord of all creation is bigger than your darkest valley.

That’s what I remind myself every time life hands me a knuckle-sandwich. God is here. God is with me. Despite all that is wrong, unjust, and askew in this old fallen world, the Lord’s will and way overcomes everything.

Divine beauty has a way of breaking through to the most challenging and desperate of experiences. We have everything we need with God. Spring reminds us there is always the hope of new life. The anticipation of trees budding and flowers blooming help us remember that the dull hibernation of winter shall break out with glorious warmth and color. Everything will change, even if it doesn’t seem like it, at the time.

The Lord provides no matter the need.

God protects despite the overwhelming dilemma. Divine power overshadows the darkest of valleys. The presence of God is everywhere. Even though we sometimes sit flummoxed about how our financial budget is going to budge or whether we have the continued energy to deal with that person or situation, with the God of the Bible, we shall never be in want of anything.

Today is a good day to punctuate your schedule with a prayerful reading of Psalm 23. As you can well see, it only takes a minute to read, maybe a few to read carefully and slowly. Use your cellphone alarm or some other means for some set times today. When the alarm goes off, take a few minutes for Psalm 23 to decenter your thoughts from worry, anxiety, and the fatigue of the day. Let it center you in the sovereignty and grace of God. Maybe use a different translation each time you read.  Here is Psalm 23 again in another version of the Bible:

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.

     He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
    bringing honor to his name.
 Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
    forever. (NLT)

Amen.

Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.