Monday, May 20, 2019

A Turn in the Vision

Lectionary Text for Sunday: Acts 16:9-15 (NRSV)

As we continue in Acts, we see that the Easter Vision takes a turn in several ways in today's text.  

We end up in Philippi and we have an entire letter from Paul to this church so we can see how their relationship began in Acts and thrived.

Paul writes that this church supported him in the early days of his ministry:


You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  
                                     Philippians 4:15-18 (NRSV)

It is fascinating that Paul initially goes to Philippi because of a vision that a man was requesting his help.  He encounters women at the river and we see the conversion of Lydia.  Since she owned her own business, it is not unlikely that Lydia was one of the supporters of Paul's missionary activities.  It is also possible that Euodia and Syntyche mentioned in Philippians 4:2 were two of the women that Paul met by the river that day.

Sometimes life throws us curve balls.
How we respond is up to us!
This turn shows that the church thrived with female leadership.  It was not likely Paul's expectation but he has learned that God is going to utilize surprising candidates for furthering the church.  He has taken a turn geographically in moving into Macedonia, he takes a turn culturally in witnessing to Gentiles and he takes a turn in leadership in placing women in positions of authority.

Just as women were discounted in Paul's day, who might we discount for leadership in the church today?  Who might God be using for furthering the church in the 21st century?

I hope that you'll join us in worship (either in person or online) as we continue to see how the early church speaks to us in the church today!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Babak Fakhamzadeh via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Prioritizing the Vision

Lectionary Reading: Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

This sounds like something John Wesley would say but he didn't.

In his tract, "The Character of a Methodist" he does write, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."

And so we have to figure out what is essential.  We have to figure out what is the root of Christianity.  We have to know what we are about as people of faith.

Within today's reading in Acts, we see Peter re-evaluating what was essential.  What does it mean to be uncircumcised and yet a believer in Jesus Christ?  What does it mean to share in food that is considered unclean?

To the many of the people of that day, these were "essentials".  To suggest otherwise was to strike at the root of Christianity.

And yet, here we see Peter moving past them.  How would he decide to do this?

What was his rubric?

It was what he saw as the mission of the church.   The mission of the church was not to circumcise men (although this was laid out as a commandment by God).  The mission of the church was not to observe dietary laws (also laid out by God).  But the mission of the church was to share the gift of life in Jesus Christ with the world.  All other things are subservient to the mission.

As we discover our own mission as the church, we have to prioritize our actions.  How do the things we do help us to achieve this mission today?  If there are things we are doing that were not helping (such as insisting on circumcision for adult men), then we may need to stop doing them.  

Sometimes the church's difficulty is moving
people past hospitality and into discipleship.
Sometimes churches prioritize things that serve themselves.  They seek to be comfortable rather than truly engage in costly discipleship.  What kinds of things would we give up to offer life?

If a church puts out doughnuts, are they for members or visitors?  Do they represent our hospitality or our comfort?  What about coffee?  (uh, oh).  It is not wrong for me to partake of these things in my own church.  But it may be wrong if I do so at the expense of the mission.    

I will attempt to wade a little deeper into these waters on Sunday.  I invite you to join me and hopefully we won't pull each other under!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Deb Watson via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.




Sunday, April 21, 2019

Daily Devotion to finish Lent 2019 - Easter Sunday

Scripture Reading: Matthew 28:1-20 (NRSV)

Matthew in more closely dealing with the Jewish community includes the details about the guards.  It is interesting that they "became like dead men" showing that fear saps us of life.  I like the irony that they became "dead" while guarding that which was dead but now is alive in Jesus Christ.  The juxtaposition of the empire's forces and God's reality is subtle but apparent.

I wonder if going back to the mountain
reminded the disciples of the Transfiguration?
The women were the first to be greeted by the risen Lord and they worship him.  In Matthew's Gospel, the disciples worshiped Jesus in the boat after he walked on water and stilled the storm.  We see the disciples worshiping Jesus once again at the end of this chapter.  It is interesting to note that Matthew relates that "some doubted" in verse 17.  This does reflect back to the incident on the boat when he told them, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" in 14:31.  I think this shows how real death is for people.  Even when shown evidence with our own eyes, when our belief in a world-view is so ingrained, it makes it difficult to accept.

Jesus gives us the Great Commission in verses 19-20 which reminds us of God telling us in Genesis 1:28 to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it".  So as Matthew did not know about the book of Revelation as it hadn't been written yet, we have a new capstone for the biblical narrative.

We once again have our marching orders but they include "all nations" which is how we see the Gospel unfold.  Jesus was told that his name was Emmanuel which means "God is with us" in 1:23.  Now we see that he is going to remain with us to the end of the age.

As a Christian, what does this mean to celebrate resurrection as a constant companion?

How do you see yourself being both part of the fulfillment of the Great Commission and also responsible to fulfill it?

Where do your own gifts and graces move you to teach the message of Jesus to someone who may not share the faith?  And just in case this makes some (undoubtedly) blanch, teaching often happens most efficiently by our example.

Thanks for sharing in Matthew's Gospel.  I found it enriching to see Matthew as a master narrator weaving together the stories of Jesus in a work that moves us forward in a remarkable way.  It has been life-giving to me and I hope to you as well.

In Christ,

Sam Powers
   

Prayer for the day:

God, you are the author and the giver of life.
You never leave us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
You suffer with us in our times of trial.
You constantly surprise us with blessing.
You renew us with resurrection.
May we cast aside our doubts and worship you this day!
Amen.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 40

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:57-66 (NRSV)

I like the image of the road going right
by the empty tomb - lots to stir the imagination!
As we prepare for Easter, today's reading in Matthew reminds me of a pot that is boiling when the lid starts shaking.

You know that something is coming and you are going to be forced to respond.

We see Jesus placed in a tomb and the women observing where his body was buried.  They are making a note so as to know where to go the next day.

The chief priests and the Pharisees continue to conspire against Jesus with the Roman authorities.  They have the tomb sealed and guards placed so that the body cannot be stolen and stories circulated about his resurrection.

They tried to silence Jesus though the entire Gospel and even though they had him killed, they may realize that it is not over yet.

There is usually a finality about death that would leave us saying, "Why bother?"  But in this case, we are anticipating (even alongside our enemies) that the story has another chapter.

The calm of the rock tomb will soon be shaken.

The lives of the women watching and their male counterparts will soon be changed.

The cosmic order of things shifts from mortality to something more beautiful.

May it be so for you as well.

Prayer for the day:

God, we give thanks for the still times.
We give thanks for quiet and rest.
We give thanks for places of healing.
In our gratitude, through our gratitude, may we still experience joyous surprise!
Amen.


Photo by califguy4christ via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Friday, April 19, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 39 (Good Friday)

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:1-56 (NRSV)

What do we make of the death of Jesus?

Matthew's Gospel reminds us that this death is significant and that it moves us beyond Judaism and into something new.

Here we have the only Gospel account of what happens to Judas.  Acts tells a different account with both coming to a grisly end.  In Matthew, Judas, like Peter, is repentant of his disobedience.  Judas however seeks to find his forgiveness in the Temple.  The Christian reader in the day of Matthew knows that the Temple has been destroyed.  We now look in another direction for forgiveness.  Another interesting note is that this blood money was used to buy a cemetery for foreigners.  The unclean money was used to buy a field that would be permanently unclean.  And yet, also fitting in that the ministry of Jesus reaches beyond Judaism to Gentiles.  We see this throughout the chapter.

We see that Rome is in charge of the crucifixion.  There are other offenders who are awaiting their fate.  Jesus Barabbas is only given this first name in Matthew.  His surname means "son of the father" which may also refer to Jerusalem.  They later chose to pick up the sword as Barabbas did rather than choose the way of peace and Rome reacted with extreme prejudice in reclaiming the territory in the year 70.

The people as a whole are united against Jesus in verse 25.  This is a reversal in a way of 4:25 when Jesus started his ministry of healing: "And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan."   (NRSV)  Here we see the crowds come from beyond Judaism indicating a broader ministry to the available world at large.

Jesus is mocked and rejected by his own people but also the occupying soldiers.  With the sign, "King of the Jews" he was executed as the leader of an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman Empire.  The two "bandits" on his left and right were likely also killed as examples of treason against Rome.  Many Zealots in that day were stirring up rebellion against occupation - some openly and others more surreptitiously.  Even these rebel leaders are shown to deride Jesus.

When Jesus dies, the Temple curtain is torn in two.  The barrier between God and the world is destroyed.  The dead are raised but not immediately - this happens after Easter foreshadowing the next chapter.  The world starts to believe.  Note that it is a Gentile centurion who makes the declaration that this is God's Son.  

The women who will be the first witnesses to the resurrection are present to witness to his death.  This is a beginning of a changing of the order of the world as men would have been valid witnesses in that culture.   Christianity begins to move past its roots and into a new thing.

On this Good Friday, how does the death of Jesus move you into compassion for people that may seem beyond redemption?

How do we witness the suffering of Jesus and relate it to the suffering of the world today?

While it can seem overwhelming, maybe our response is to notice it in our locale.  It is normal that we would not want to look at those hurting - Good Friday services are never as full as Easter's.  People can almost become invisible to us.  Take a moment to reflect who may be unseen around us who may be crossing our path.  

How does the death of Jesus spiritualize who we see in the world?

Prayer for the day:

God, we would repent of ways in which we have turned away from our Lord.
We know that forgiveness comes in Christ.
Be with us on this day.
If we are unsettled, do not move us too quickly to comfort.
May our grief be a tangible reminder of who you call us to be.
Amen.


Photo by Claudio Ungari via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 38

Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:36-75 (NRSV)

It must have been a difficult time for Jesus to endure.

Sometimes we sleep even though
we know we shouldn't.
Surrounding his arrest, the characters through which we see the story are his disciples.  Their behavior even though predicted seems to be lacking in perseverance.

We find them sleeping and Jesus implores them to stay awake and pray with him.  They fall asleep two more times, awakened when one of their own number comes with a mob bent on taking Jesus in for questioning.  This reminds us that Jesus has instructed us to keep awake two times before in the preceding two chapters.

Even as Jesus is being arrested, we see his followers seek to intervene with violence and Jesus continues to instruct.  With his declaration of the angels, we understand that Jesus is really in charge of the situation but allows it to continue.

Notice that he refuses to speak under oath as we are reminded that Jesus has told us to avoid doing that - Peter by contrast denies Jesus by oath.

The treatment of Jesus in being struck, slapped and spit upon reminds us of the suffering servant from Isaiah 50:6:

I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.    (NRSV)

Just as we begin our reading with the disciples falling asleep three times, we then end it with Peter's thrice denial of his Lord.  It would be hard to criticize Peter as he would have feared for his own life.  It would have been terribly traumatic.  Maybe he would have justified his own inaction by agreeing with Jesus that God could send angels to do the work of freeing him.  Placing his own life in jeopardy would not make Jesus any less captive.

What is impressive is that this is the church's account of what happened.  We could have easily brushed some of the less charitable moments by its founders under the rug and yet they are exposed in the light of day.  This is because we must always remember that we are founded on grace.

There are times in our own lives that we may have rather had God send an angel to do the work we were called to do.  After all, we can justify with the best of them!  But maybe we are called to be numbered in the twelve legions of angels at God's disposal.  This story reminds us that just because God is on our side, it doesn't mean we won't suffer for the cause.

Prayer for the day:

God, we are not betrayers.
We would never desert you.  
We are not deniers of our faith.
But if we examine our actions,
and if we are honest with ourselves,
we know that we also have moments that might cause us to weep.
Give us the courage to be the Church anyway.
Amen.

Photo by reynermedia via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:1-35 (NRSV)

What is our response to Jesus?

Matthew shares a whole variety of people interacting with Jesus at the end of his life.

It is time for the Passover in Jerusalem.  This was a time when pilgrims flooded the holy city so that they could break bread together and worship at the Temple.  The chief priests and the elders of the people want to remove Jesus from the scene but they feared the crowds' response.  A riot would cost many Jews their lives and they don't seem to want this kind of chaos.  They just want things to go on as they had.

Don't we all.

Something about sharing a meal
defines us as a family.  We see this in 
the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Matthew identifies the anointing by Mary as happening at Simon the leper's home.  This is a fascinating context and we can assume that he had been made well by Jesus.  His willingness to be in Simon's home indicates the importance Jesus would have stressed at mainstreaming this man back into the community.  There would be no question that he would host the Rabbi Jesus as this would be a great honor.  Note also that a woman prepares him for his burial.  Women will also seek to tend to his body following the Sabbath just days away.

Judas must have heard that a bounty was being offered for Jesus.  With all the throng of people, it would have been difficult to identify a single man and so you would need someone who knew where he would be and how long he would be there.  As we imagine Jesus transforming so many lives and Judas being a witness to it all, we have pause that he would seek to gain from his destruction.

But just as the religious leaders sought to silence Jesus, maybe Judas did not agree with all of what Jesus taught.  Grace is hard to wrap our heads around and maybe it was all too much too soon for Judas to handle.

How will Jesus respond to this?  Notice that the betrayal of Judas and the prediction of the denial of Peter and desertion of the disciples bookend the Last Supper.  It is done for the forgiveness of sins.

As current disciples, we might with Peter speak out that we will never deny Jesus.  But in Matthew's day, there may have been persecutions of Christians that did deny Jesus to save their own lives.  This important story points to a Savior that not only understands our plight but knows that the very Church is founded upon people that gave in to their fears.

This speaks to the power of Jesus to define us through our holy meal together rather than by the sins we may commit.  Note that he redefines Simon the leper at the beginning by meeting in his home.  He continues to see us as he will see us - not at our worst but at our greatest potential.

Where are those places in your life that your Christian faith or walk has struggled?

If we find that grace comes to us, why do we continue to look at our neighbor with a wary eye?

Prayer for the day:

God, we know that you make all things new.
We see that this includes a multitude of people.
It may even include us.
Move us beyond our order so that we do not cling to it like the chief priests and elders.
Move us beyond our fears so that we do not feel the need to posture.
Help us to reach our potential as you see it.
Amen.

Photo by Paul Schultz via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.