Thursday, April 9, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 38

Scripture Reading: Acts 27:1-26 (NRSV)

The first part of this passage reminds me of a road trip journal.  We are seeing various ports in the Mediterranean Sea that give us an idea of Paul's journey to Rome.

The trouble with the storm reminds me of Jonah's flight to Tarshish.  While it is clear that Paul is sailing to Rome on behalf of God's call on his life, Jonah had done the opposite.  God was the one behind the storms in Jonah's day as we see in Jonah 1:4-6:
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
Jonah seems to have a sense of calm about him even when running from God!  He's able to sleep through the storm and had to be awakened.  We find that Jonah's answer will be to save the ship and crew through sacrificing himself by jumping into the raging waters.

Paul doesn't make this same offer, likely because he doesn't see the storm as a stumbling block from God.  We do see them throw the cargo overboard as the mariners did in Jonah's day.  God's message to Paul is that everyone is going to live through this ordeal.

We also remember that Jesus slept through a storm on the waters.  We see it in Luke 8:22-25:
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
While Paul has worked miracles including exorcisms, healing and even raising one from the dead, he evidently doesn't have authority over the waves as Jesus did.  I'm sure it wasn't for lack of prayer!

I feel like I'm waiting for the rainbow
at the end of the storm.
This is a good reminder that we often sail into storms in life not of our making.  We get caught up in chaos that just happens.  This is what it feels like as we bunker down for COVID-19.  We were minding our own business when business as usual just came to a screeching halt.  Some people are feeling annoyed.  Others are frightened.  We might even have the idea of "just a little bit longer..." and the whole thing will go away and we'll be back to normal any day now.

We remember that when the storms rage, we turn to our faith.  We would like for Jesus to wake up and rebuke the pandemic.  Barring that, we would like to hear a word like Paul's that says, "I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you" and "God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you."

Ultimately, we will make it through this.  It will be difficult.  We will likely be touched by grief and loss.  But we remember that God sails with us.  And every age has its storms.

Prayer for the day:

Lord, our heavenly Father, who orders all things for our eternal good, mercifully enlighten our minds, and give us a firm and abiding trust in your love and care.  Silence our murmurings, quiet our fears, and dispel our doubts, that rising above our afflictions and our anxieties, we may rest on you, the rock of everlasting strength.  Amen.

Prayer from New Church Book of Worship, 1876

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:19-32 (NRSV)

Paul continues with his appeal to King Agrippa.  In reality, we see that Paul is seeking not to prove his innocence so much as convert Agrippa to Christianity!

When Paul mentions that the Messiah was foretold by the prophets that he must suffer, the risen Lord said this same message to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26:
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
We have already seen Isaiah's suffering servant referenced as the Messiah from Acts 8 where Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Agrippa's response is not as harsh as that of Festus who claims that Paul is crazy!  But Luke gives the impression that maybe a seed was planted with the king.  History shows us that nothing comes of this and Josephus the historian implies an incestuous relationship (Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 7) with Agrippa and his sister Bernice who was also present for Paul's testimony.

We can applaud Paul for his tenacity though!  What do we do with people who hear the testimony but do not believe?  Jesus mentions this very situation in Luke 10:23-24:
Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
This reminds us that it is a common experience for people to miss what is in front of them.  What do we do with truth as we see it which others may not merely miss but actively refute?  We trust in our testimony and remind ourselves that God is also at work in their lives just as God is at work in ours.  As we engage in dialogue with them, we must remember that true dialogue happens when we learn from each other and we're not just letting them speak while we think about what we'll say next.

Authentic dialogue takes trust.
Sometimes Christians are so charged by their transformation in Christ that they want this same experience for everyone!  Their enthusiasm may be just what some people are looking for while simultaneously turning others off completely.  For these same others, a quiet confidence may be needed for them to hear.  But this seeming lack of enthusiasm may cause the first group to pass on their faith!

We may relax and remember that God uses all kinds of people to get the witness across.  How would you describe your own sense of witness to the world?  Does it primarily rely upon your actions to your neighbors?  If so, is there a good word you might say that would accompany this?  And if you are more verbal in your witness, how might doing a good deed quietly accentuate your message?

Prayer for the day:

Lord,
give us weak eyes for things that are of no account
and clear eyes for all your truth.
Amen.

Prayer by Soren Kierkegaard, Denmark, 19th Century 

Photo by Public Relations Society of America via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
   

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 36

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:1-18 (NRSV)

Paul begins his testimony before King Agrippa who was the ruler of parts of Palestine.  This is the third time in the Book of Acts that Luke relates his conversion (the first being 9:1-8; the second being 22:4-16).  We see Paul stand upon his Jewish credentials.  This was likely something he did throughout his career as he went from place to place, sharing faith in the synagogues.  We see this in his own words from Philippians 3:4b-6 as he writes:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In today's reading, he expounds upon his persecution of the church.  He was certainly a bulldog in his pursuit of those he felt were wrong.  In this third account, when Jesus speaks to Paul, we hear him add the phrase, "It hurts you to kick against the goads."  A goad was a sharp stick used to prod a donkey or an ox.  We see even Jesus acknowledging Paul's tiresome doggedness in pursuing what he thought was right.

We have all known people with this personality trait.  You may wonder why God would choose Paul to be such an emissary to the faith.  It may have been because he was so relentless in his pursuit of his ideals.  With his new understanding of faith, Paul will work toward this witness with the same sense of zeal.  When we began chapter one of Acts and we heard in verse eight, "you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth" we were thinking that it would be the original twelve (minus Judas) disciples.

Paul's transformation and elevation reminds us that God works in ways we would not foresee.  I don't think God inspired Paul to persecute the early church so that later Paul would have the appropriate cred to reach future persecutors.  But I do think that God uses misspent free will to create something new.

What places in your life were difficult to overcome or endure?  Which things would bring you shame if you trotted them out in the light of day?  Have they given you mettle?  Made you more compassionate?  Because of the sins of our past, are we more willing to forgive people who commit sins in the present?

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.  Do not let us forget our past but rather heal us from what still hurts.  As it scabs over and becomes a scar, let us bear it wisely.  Give us empathy with others who may be so currently afflicted.  May your Holy Spirit use our entire selves for the witness of the evangel that pervades the earth.  Amen.

Photo by judyboo via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.
  
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 35

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:13-27 (NRSV)

Which kind of headwear do you think God prefers?
This is a good reminder of how outsiders perceive us when we have disagreements with those who are within the faith.  The Jews accusing Paul saw their differences as blasphemous and felt justified in wanting Paul's death for his work in sharing the gospel.  Paul understood his allegiance to Jesus Christ as fitting within the scope of Judaism as he saw it pointing to his Messiah.  But Festus and Felix only saw it as "they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive."

After two years of imprisonment, Paul is receiving an audience before the King.  In 60 CE, this would have been King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice was sister to the king.  This rising of Paul from prison to stand before the king is reminiscent of Joseph going from prison to stand before Pharaoh although Paul will not be elevated to an adviser. Interestingly, Joseph also waits in prison for two years before he receives an audience.

This also fulfills what Jesus declares in Luke 21:12-15:
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."
As I have read about all of the disagreements within Christianity through the centuries, they don't ever seem as urgent from the pages of history as they must have seemed at the time.  This should remind us to step back from our religious disagreements if they are getting too heated.  Why are we getting so upset?  What is it about the disagreement that makes us so angry?  What is happening in your opponent's life that would make this upsetting for them?  Why are they getting hot under the collar?

To reduce our own heat and to understand ourselves is important in any conflict.  Then we can take the next step and seek understanding of our neighbor.  To really love our neighbors is to listen to them and seek clarification on why they think the way they do.  But I think it is always difficult to understand them if we don't understand ourselves.  If Christians can begin to disagree respectfully, those on the outside looking in might take notice about The Way.

Prayer for the day:

Father, we pray for your Church throughout the world, that it may share to the full in the work of your Son, revealing you to all and reconciling all to you and one another; that Christians may learn to love one another and their neighbors, as you have loved us; that your Church may more and more reflect the unity which is your will and your gift; we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Prayer from Coventry Cathedral, Chapel of Unity, Church of England.

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




Sunday, April 5, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Palm Sunday

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:1-12 (NRSV)

Porcius Festus was the new procurator of Judea and was appointed by Nero in 60 CE.  Since the previous procurator Felix was unwilling to do anything about Paul except to keep him imprisoned, the Jews Paul had enraged thought they might have better luck with the new leader.  They would like to get Paul out of Caesarea and back to Jerusalem.

Who was really imprisoned?  Paul or those
who would seek his death?
Festus invites them to come with him to Caesarea to accuse Paul there while Festus is present.  He asks Paul if he wishes to be tried in Jerusalem and Paul appeals to his right to trial as a Roman citizen.  This was his right if he was being accused of treason.   It must have been one of the charges they brought as he states that he has committed no offense "against the emperor."

This is a textbook case in letting your anger get the best of you.  If those who hated Paul for his teachings had left him to rot in jail, he may have been forgotten and unrecognized by the new procurator.  Would Festus have even been aware of Paul?  But by seeking greater vengeance against him, this gives him a greater stage.

Luke references Jesus from his gospel when he states in Luke 6:37-38:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This is not easy to do when we have an enemy.  When you have been slighted in your mind, the offender will often remain in our thoughts long after the slight has occurred.  But the power of forgiveness is that it limits an enemy's hold over your mindfulness.  We can move on to better things.

Is there someone negative in your life that dominates your thoughts?  Do they take up a disproportionate amount of your awareness?  If you considered forgiveness for this person, you might be able to limit the larger stage he or she is occupying. 

Prayer for the day:

Lord, you remind us that you will give us rest for our heavy burdens.  We do not need the burden of enmity but we have become used to carrying it.  We have forgotten what it is like to be light.  Aid us in our forgiveness of others.  May we remember that you will help us to be merciful when we are unable to begin the work ourselves.  Amen.

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 34

Scripture Reading: Acts 24:1-27 (NRSV)

Paul has now been moved to Caesarea, a coastal city NW of Jerusalem.  He's under trial before Antonius Felix who was the Roman procurator of the Judea province from 52-60 CE.  The prosecuting attorney, Tertullus, makes his case against Paul as an agitator and states that the last straw was Paul's attempt to profane the temple.  This was referring to Acts 21:27-29:
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
I have already referred to the Jewish restriction of Gentiles in the temple.  Roman rule sought to keep order in all of its provinces.  But they also sought to protect Roman citizens and Paul qualified.

Paul makes his own case and testifies that Christianity (aka the sect of the Nazarenes, aka the Way) remained within standard observance of Judaism.  His defense further underscores that this is really a matter of intra-religious debate in the Jewish faith concerning the resurrection.

Felix is note shown in the best light by Luke as he seems to be ruled by fear and greed.  He keeps Paul imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (58-60 CE) without making a judgment against him one way or another.  We see that the prophecy of Argabus from Acts 21:10-11 came true:
While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 
Paul certainly understood suffering for the sake of the gospel.  Within his epistles, the themes of freedom in Christ take on a new ring.  When he writes in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" we have new insight.

Quiet contemplation can lead us
to greater spiritual insights if we
take the time to ponder.
As we undergo the shelter-in-place orders while the world seeks to get a handle on COVID-19, we may also have a new appreciation for Paul.  We recognize that our own exile from society is nothing compared to Paul's imprisonment.  There was no Wi-Fi, cell phones or ice cream available to him!

Paul was productive in his incarceration.  We have the epistles that were composed while he was in jail.  This makes us think about "throw-away" time.  How can we take some time in thinking about the larger spiritual matters that we face in life?  Are there ways that we can incorporate spirituality into everyday chores that must be done?  Is there a larger issue of your faith that you would like to research?




Prayer for the day:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.


Photo by photoholic1 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Friday, April 3, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 33

Scripture Reading: Acts 23:23-35 (NRSV)

Paul is being evacuated from Jerusalem for his own safety.  The number of soldiers listed by Luke seems a little exaggerated.  It would be economically unfeasible to give this kind of attention to every citizen of Rome that was threatened across the empire.

I think it is important when we read this today to realize that we experience it from a totally different context.  As Paul experienced persecution from Jewish rioters in Jerusalem, this was done in the circumstance where Christians were a minority among a Jewish majority.  Today, in the United States, there are around 6 million Jews as compared to Christians at around 213,000,000.  This difference equates to a power differential concerning life in our country.  For instance through much of the 20th century, blue laws shut down American life on Sundays (the Christian sabbath) rather than Saturday (the Jewish sabbath).

If we don't understand the power differential, tragedies like the Holocaust can occur. 

Paul understands both sides.  Prior to his baptism, he was a persecutor himself.  He experienced all of the privilege of being in the religious majority.  Now he is on the other side and yet his privilege this time is coming from his Roman citizenship.  This may have further enraged the Jewish population in Jerusalem because they would have preferred to self-govern.   

This dismissive slogan is insulting to a generation
but it also speaks volumes to how they are received
by those entering adulthood.
Christians in the United States today are finding a shifting population as far as how they are being received.  There is more skepticism these days concerning organized religion.  Things that we took for granted such as couples returning to church after they started having children are no longer the norm.  Nevertheless, we are still the majority in this country.  The danger is that Christianity may be seen as something quaint or outdated by younger generations. 

How do we speak as a majority to a generation that finds much of the majority tedious?  How do we share our faith in ways that can be heard rather than dismissed?  I'll take my cue from Paul.  It seems that he was going to be authentically himself.  He would speak to those who would hear and move on from those who wouldn't.  But his interest was in giving everyone a shot no matter where they showed up on the social status radar.

Prayer for the day:

O God, who has bound us together in this bundle of life,
give us grace to understand how our lives depend on the industry,
the honesty and integrity of our fellows;
that we may be mindful of their needs,
grateful for their faithfulness,
and faithful in our responsibilities to them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.


Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, Union Theological Seminary, 20th Century 

Photo by Trending Topics 2019 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 32

Scripture Reading: Acts 23:1-22 (NRSV)

This is the third Ananias mentioned in Acts.  The first was struck dead in chapter 5 for not being honest in his gifts before God.  The second was the Christian who healed Paul of his blindness in chapter 9.  And now this Ananias was the high priest during the reigns of Claudius and Nero after being appointed by Herod Agrippa II in 48 CE.  He was later assassinated around 66 CE as reported by Jewish historian Josephus.

Paul's insult of him being a "whitewashed wall" is not well-known among scholars.  He may have been referring to a tomb which would have been unclean (not something a high priest would appreciate).  Matthew 23:27 mentions Jesus using similar language:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth."
This would make sense as we read Paul's letters.  He was not a man that was unable to stand up for himself.

When they call out Paul for his insolence toward the high priest, Paul claims ignorance as to this position and quotes Exodus 22:28:
 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people. 
Americans look at cursing our leaders as a constitutional right!  United Methodists may forget that our own heritage from John Wesley included the General Rule of "Do No Harm."  Wesley specifically lines out (Paragraph 104 of the Discipline) that we should avoid "Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers."  It wasn't profitable for Paul at the time (no matter how satisfying it might have been).

When Paul observes a division of the council, he quickly tries to move the antagonism from his own person to the issue of the resurrection.  He knows that he'll have allies in the Pharisees while at the same time verifying his enmity with the Sadducees.  It does seem to ramp them up but unfortunately, they come back around to Paul for their outlet.

A conspiracy arises that will end Paul's life with the involvement of not a small number of people.  Paul may have been one of those people you either loved or hated!  We see that he's comforted by another vision of the risen Jesus who indicates that he'll survive this encounter in order to testify in Rome. 

Then we see help come from an unexpected quarter.  Paul's own nephew learns of the attack and warns him.  We may be surprised to learn that Paul has a nephew (or a sister).  We don't find out either of their names and can only assume that the nephew was also a believer since he was close by to help out his uncle.  This is the only place they are referenced in scripture.  The tribune hears about the plan from Paul's nephew.  Since Paul is a Roman citizen, the tribune will be under stronger persuasion to keep this from happening under his watch.

Paul reminds us to bloom in the midst
of adversity.
When we see Paul's crisis, we see how God was moving to keep him continuing to witness until he got to Rome.  We know that Paul will eventually die in Rome but not before he can help the church there.  He composes his letter to the Romans prior to his visit.  Consequently, the whole church has been enriched by his actions (and the fact that he survives Jerusalem in today's reading).  How do we take comfort in God having more for us to do?  I think as we have long-term goals spiritually, this allows us to see past whatever current crisis we may be experiencing.

As we think about our own goals, it may be that you don't normally think about spiritual goals.  If you were to name an outwardly focused goal (your work with your neighbors) and an inwardly focused goal (your relationship with God), what would they be?

Prayer for the day:

Lord, we pray not for tranquility,
   nor that our tribulations may cease;
we pray for your spirit and your love,
   that you would grant us strength and grace to overcome adversity;
      through Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Prayer by Girolamo Savonarola, Dominican friar, Italy, 15th century

Photo by Dr. Wendy Longo via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 31

Scripture Reading: Acts 22:17-30 (NRSV)

Paul has been addressing the mob that wanted to kill him, first identifying with them and then relating his conversion story.  In verses 17-21, we have an interlude of a flashback to Paul's arrival in Jerusalem.  He tells of receiving a vision of Jesus where Paul is given instruction to leave Jerusalem.  Paul actually argues with Jesus (similarly to how Ananias reacts to being instructed) by telling him, "They'll listen to me because I was just like them!"  Jesus doesn't respond to his line of reasoning but just exclaims, "Go!"  Paul is going to the Gentiles.

Paul is arguing with Jesus because he wants his Jewish audience to believe.  He wants the message to ease their anger so that they can be transformed as he has been transformed.  His compassion may remind us of Abraham bargaining with God on the fate of Sodom.  After Abraham continues to bring down the number he needs to instigate their salvation, I like when he finally says, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more."  But just as Abraham doesn't find the ten righteous that he needs, Paul is about to find out that he should have listened to Jesus.

We discover that the crowd is ready to kill Paul.  Jesus should know what he is talking about because he had faced a similar crowd some years earlier.  Luke 23:20-23 seems to resonate here:
Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.
Sometimes you get a better deal
if you are local or know the culture.
Here the tribune is about to have information beaten out of Paul but Paul's citizenship once more comes to his aid.  We see that while his foreign status (being from Tarsus) was not necessarily helpful to a Jewish audience, his Roman citizenship was beneficial for where Jesus was sending him.  It reminds me of Moses being raised as an Egyptian and then is able to later negotiate with Pharaoh likely because he knows the ways of the court.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was educated in Boston but returned to his people in the south to lead them to freedom.  Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi was educated in England and then brought freedom to his people first in South Africa and then in India.  Here we see Paul being sent to the Gentiles - people of an empire which was familiar to him.

If you were to examine your background, would you find experiences and commonalities that would help you relate to certain people today?  How can you bring this to light?  Do you ever argue with Jesus about what you are to do or say?  Who do you know - with whom are you familiar - that needs to hear a good word from you today and might receive it well?

Prayer for the day:

For a clearer vision of the work you have set before us and for a better understanding of your gospel, Lord direct us.
For a deeper commitment in your service and a greater love for all your children, Lord direct us.
For a fresh understanding of the task before us and for a sense of urgency in our proclamation, Lord direct us.
For a greater respect and acceptance among Christians of different traditions and for a common goal in evangelism, Lord direct us.
Amen.

Prayer from liturgy of the Anglican Province of the Indian Ocean

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 30

Scripture Reading: Acts 21:37-22:16 (NRSV)

We see that Paul is misunderstood not only by the Jews who seek to do him harm but also the Roman officials who are trying to keep the peace in Jerusalem.  The tribune thinks he is an Egyptian who was a false messiah who was seeking revolution in Jerusalem.  The historian Josephus tells about him in his fifth point of the thirteenth chapter of his "Of the War - Book II."

He gives Paul permission to speak to the crowd and Paul addresses them in Hebrew.  This would begin to soothe their notion that he's a foreigner trying to bring Gentiles into the temple.    Paul also makes reference to studying under Gamaliel who was earlier referenced by Luke in chapter 5 when Gamaliel saves Peter and the apostles by saying that if they weren't from God, then they would fail.  Gamaliel is known by writings outside of the Bible and was famous at the time.

This gives Paul even more credit among those who are listening.  He then tells them about how he did essentially what they were doing except under the authority of the religious elite.  So we can imagine Paul's irony in his addressing them.  He can't really blame them or feel enmity for them for beating him and wanting him dead.  He can't help but see a younger version of himself in them.

Paul can do nothing but relay his experience of the risen Jesus and how he was healed by Ananias.  Note that Paul doesn't relay Ananias's vision from Jesus or that he is a Christian (as contained in Acts 9:1-22).  Rather, he describes him (truthfully but maybe leaving out some details) as a "devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there."  Note that Ananias calls upon Paul to be baptized for a repentance of sin and doesn't mention the Holy Spirit.  This would sound similar to the baptism of John which would have still been familiar to those in Jerusalem.

Sometimes to understand where we are going,
we have to understand where we've been.
Paul is establishing common ground with them.  He is trying to get them to come along with him so that maybe they will be willing to take a similar journey for themselves.

Sometimes when we grow in faith, we deconstruct ideas that we had earlier in life.  Some people deepen their understanding to where they see a broader understanding of God in the world.  For others, they stay locked into a fairly simple cosmology.  Things are more black and white as they were for Paul earlier in his life.  The risen Christ has deconstructed his earlier understandings that would make him want to participate in persecutions. 

Think about your own journey of faith.  Are there things that you believed earlier in your life that you see differently today?  Has your interpretation of certain scriptures changed?  How did you think of God when you were a child?  A teenager?  Today?

Prayer for the day:

Let the healing grace of your love, O Lord,
so transform me that I may play my part
in the transfiguration of the world from a place
of suffering, death and corruption to a realm
of infinite light, joy and love.
Make me so obedient to your Spirit that my life
may become a living prayer,
and a witness to your unfailing presence.
Amen.

Prayer by Martin Israel, Anglican Priest, South Africa, 20th century

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  


Monday, March 30, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 29

Scripture Reading: Acts 21:17-36 (NRSV)

Paul may be in trouble.  He's stirred up trouble among Jews all across the Mediterranean because of his liberal views concerning Gentiles.  When he comes back, he visits with James, the brother of Jesus who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  James was known for his preservation of Judaism within Christianity and so the critique of Paul's message to the Gentiles may have been closer than Luke indicates in this passage.

Did Paul tell Gentiles to forsake Moses? 

Not exactly.  The preservation of Judaic law was not Paul's mission.  His mission was to introduce people to the living Lord be they Jew or Gentile.

Paul does state in 1 Corinthians 10:23-26:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.”
So in this instance, he allows the eating of meat offered to idols and not slaughtered with kosher methods.  He later adds that if you are with someone who has difficulty with this, then you are to refrain from eating.   So technically, while his mission is not to forsake Moses, someone who is committed to the dietary laws could certainly phrase it this way.

Paul has a different mindset.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians (9:19-23), he explains this explicitly:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. 
Paul begins to live out, "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews" in following the Jerusalem leadership's instructions to join in the purification rites.  Unfortunately, this was not enough.  When those zealous for the law are stirred up, they seize Paul and begin to beat him.  The violence is contagious as they contend that he has violated the temple by bringing in a Gentile.  Archaeologists have actually discovered an engraving from the time of Herod that forbids the entry of Gentiles to the temple which was punishable by death.

Fortunately for Paul, Roman soldiers intervene.  While they were the executioners of his Lord, they would ironically be his lifeline on this day.

What feelings does this photo engender?
This is a blatant reminder that our views can be misconstrued.  Paul was not interested in tearing down the law for the Jewish population.  He was actually exposing the wider world to quite a bit of it.  But his main reason for doing this was to share the resurrected Christ with all that he could.  If the law got in the way, he was not opposed to laying it aside for his main purpose.  But others saw him as an enemy to God.  This is a great irony because the very people who were beating him were simply a version of his younger self.

How do we come across with our words?  In such a diverse setting as today, would Paul have said, "To the Republicans, I became as a Republican, in order to win Republicans.  To the Democrats, I became as a Democrat, in order to win Democrats"?  While this sounds rather wishy-washy, for Paul, it was about getting his message across effectively. 

When you hear the words of someone and you disagree with their position, do you give the benefit of the doubt or are you more likely to stir the pot?  We must be careful not to misconstrue people's positions or we join in the mob mentality that is unfortunately a part of the human condition.  Sometimes it is good for us to review, "What is my main objective as a follower of Jesus?

Prayer for the day:

Lord, since you exist, we exist.
Since you are beautiful, we are beautiful.
Since you are good, we are good.
By our existence we honor you.
By our beauty we glorify you.
By our goodness we love you.
Lord, through your power all things were made.
Through your wisdom all things are governed.
Through your grace all things are sustained.
Give us power to serve you, wisdom to discern your laws,
and grace to obey those at all times.
Amen.

Prayer by Edmund of Abingdon, Archbishop of Canterbury, 13th century

Photo by Pete Souza, Official White House photo, November 10, 2016. 

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Fifth Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Acts 21:1-16 (NRSV)

We model safety as some make different choices. 
When children grow older, we eventually let go of their hands.
Paul is making his way back to Jerusalem.  I find it interesting that he stays at Philip the evangelist's house in Caesarea.  Philip was one of the seven chosen to serve from Acts 6:1-6.  Philip's story is contained in chapter 8 which ends with him coming to Caesarea. 

We see Paul coming full circle as chapter 8 begins with Saul's (Paul's) approval of the killing of Stephen.  Then Luke mentions Paul's persecution of the church before moving into Philip's boundary-breaking stories of preaching in Samaria and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Now Paul is a different person and seeks to return to Jerusalem after performing his own boundary-breaking ministry across the Mediterranean.

The prophet Agabus binds his own hands and feet with Paul's belt.  Would this have been difficult for Paul to see?  Did it remind him of when he first bound believers in his early career?  It was meant as a deterrent but it perhaps emboldened Paul as he may still have harbored guilt over his previous actions.

It could be that Paul knew of the words that Jesus said to Peter as contained in John 21:18:
"Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 
Paul refuses to be swayed by the believers present and they are silenced.  They conclude with "The Lord's will be done."

Sometimes that's all we can say, isn't it?  There may be a situation in which we have no control.  When a person we love is an adult and we respect their ability to make their own decisions, we may give our opinions and advice but in the end, we must allow them to proceed as they think best.  If we don't allow this, we are binding them with their belt and leading them the way we want them to go.  This is often a painful time for parents of young adults.  We would like for our experience to influence them positively.  We may not want them to make the same mistakes that we made.  But what we sometimes fail to realize is that these mistakes helped to shape us to become who we are today.

Is there an adult in your life that if you had the final say, you would make different choices for them?  Is this affecting your relationship with them?  What if, after we let them know what we think, we remained silent on the subject and concluded with, "The Lord's will be done"?

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God,
I need you more now that I am growing older.
Help me to do less talking and more listening,
less complaining and more exclaiming.
Please, no bossing now, 
just watching over and standing by,
but not telling how.
Keep me from moodiness and self-pity;
from repetitious words set me free.
Keep me in tune with the young,
let me be carefree enough to have fun.
Let me not think the world has changed so much
that I grow bitter and out of touch.
Let me use my experience in much living
as an incentive for more giving.
Gracious God, I need you much more now.
Amen.

Prayer by Charlotte Carpenter, Kansas, 20th Century

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 28

Scripture Reading: Acts 20:1-38 (NRSV)

Paul continues with his missionary journeys in today's reading.  We see that this movement is not his alone.  Lots of other new names surface that remind us that in order for the witness to have spread like it did, others embraced the message and shared it.  It is interesting the Luke resumes using "us" and "we" pronouns in verse five.  Some scholars conclude that Luke was involved personally in these journeys and becomes the biographer of the movement from first-hand experience.

We have the miraculous resurrection of Eutychus by Paul.  It is almost comical how he dies.  Paul's preaching has literally bored him to death!  This is why pews are low to the ground in today's sanctuaries.  I like how Luke understates their response in verse 12 by saying, "they...were not a little comforted."

Paul seems to begin his farewell tour.  He either has received some spiritual insight into his eventual martyrdom (likely beheaded in Rome circa 65 AD) or he realizes that his death is likely considering his recent track record.  This comes to light in verses 24-25:
But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
“And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. 
While Paul is credited for the authorship of the letters to Timothy, many scholars believe that these came a generation after Paul and represent his school of thought.  Regardless, we see a similar sense of his own end recorded in 2 Timothy 4:6-8:
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Paul also warns his fellow Christians that they are not going to be spared of their own danger.  His flock metaphor along with wolves in verses 28-29 reminds us of the teachings of Jesus.  It especially sounds like Matthew 7:15 where Jesus states,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."
Finally, Paul reminds them that he did not do this for any material gain.  We often quote Paul quoting Jesus in verse 35, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." This reminds us that there would have been a lot of oral tradition from Jesus that was not written down as this particular phrase is not found in the gospels.

Paul's own sense of duty and mission to God in Christ was crucial to the spread of Christianity.  He was not afraid to suffer or sacrifice on behalf of the gospel.  While we experience crisis - especially in isolation - we are tempted to distance ourselves emotionally as well as physically from those neighbors who may be suffering.  While the physical separation is important, it is vital that we remain connected spiritually to one another.  We are reminded from this passage that while Paul was separated physically from his followers, he continued to remain connected by the best means available in his day - letters.  So just as Paul attempted to give instruction and inspiration from a distance, how might we continue to connect from afar to buoy the spirits of others?  What good word would you have for someone today?

Prayer for the day:

O God, who is present to your people in every place,
mercifully hear our prayers for those we love who are now parted from us:
watch over them, we beseech you, and protect them from anxiety, danger and temptation;
and assure both them and us that you are always near,
and that we are one in you forever; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer by Brooke Foss Westcott, Church of England, 19th Century  

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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


Friday, March 27, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 27

Scripture Reading: Acts 19:21-41 (NRSV)

At some point Christianity became the dominant religion in the Mediterranean but when it developed, it was a minority.  Within places like Ephesus which is located in modern Turkey, the various gods and goddesses of Greece had major temples erected to them. 

As Christianity began to declare monotheism, it cast into doubt the validity of other forms of worship.  This wouldn't have taken place overnight but rather became an idea that some adopted but the majority at first resisted.  And when the majority resists something, it can get ugly.

Theories can be debated fairly civilly but when you touch on people's livelihood, we may feel threatened.  These feelings are deeply ingrained and seem to go back to prehistoric interactions of providing and protecting one's family.  Violence against a perceived threat was an ever-ready response. 

What popular venues do we have closing today
that would be similar to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus?
In this section, we see Demetrius seeing the bigger picture.  Monotheism may severely cut into his trade as a silversmith (he couldn't see that Christians would also later buy ornamental and decorative crosses).  He rallies other businessmen and a mob mentality ensues.  The majority resists this change quite openly!

Violence could easily break out but Paul thinks he can calm down the crowd.  His companions disagree and keep him away.  They likely had the better judgment as other officials of Ephesus also urge Paul not to attend!  Maybe they all know that Paul's often dogmatic approach would not be what is needed here!

Fortunately cooler heads prevail and the riot is avoided.

It is easy for us to understand how heated Demetrius must have been when his profits started waning.  With the spread of the COVID-19, we have seen businesses across the country shutting down.  While we hope that this is temporary, it is easy to conceive that many won't be able to re-open when the crisis is over.  Jobs are being disrupted and people are afraid today for their livelihood.  Some politicians such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas have expressed displeasure at the closures and their own fear of the economy crashing.  He would rather let people decide for themselves on whether or not to close their businesses. 

This reminds us that anxieties run high when we our ability to provide and protect our family is threatened.  We have two fears battling here - the fear of the virus and the fear of the loss of our jobs and way of life. 

How do you determine which direction God would have you favor?  There are not good outcomes either way, so it isn't easy.  As a pastor (and follower of the Great Physician), I fall in line with keeping people healthy.  I pray that we can keep cool heads during this crisis and seek to help our neighbors.  But at a distance!

Prayer for the day:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who went about doing good and healing all manner of sickness:
give strength, wisdom and gentleness to all your ministering servants, our physicians, surgeons and nurses; that always bearing your presence with them, they may not only heal but bless, and shine as lamps of hope in the darkest hours of distress and fear; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever one God world without end.  Amen.

Prayer by the Church Missionary Society

Photo by Russ Allison Loar via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.




Thursday, March 26, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 26

Scripture Reading: Acts 19:1-20 (NRSV)

It may be surprising to some that John the Baptist still had disciples that were following in his way.  Paul encounters them in Ephesus and they seem very amenable to becoming Christians.   So Paul baptizes them and they receive the Holy Spirit.  Interestingly enough, there were twelve of John's disciples who convert to Christianity.  Could this be allegorical as a reference to the twelve disciples of Jesus?

For United Methodists, we ask the question, "Is this re-baptism?"  We are clear that we do not re-baptize those who have already been baptized as Christians.  Specifically, the 2016 Book of Discipline states in paragraph 341.7:
No pastor shall re-baptize. The practice of re-baptism does not conform with God’s action in baptism and is not consistent with Wesleyan tradition and the historic teaching of the church. Therefore, the pastor should counsel any person seeking re-baptism to participate in a rite of reaffirmation of baptismal vows.
Here I am baptizing a youth at someone's pool.
The rest of the congregation is gathered with the photographer.
The owners of the pool later claimed that they were swimming
in Holy Water!
But what our polity is talking about is Christian baptism that resonates with our theology of the Trinity.  Since John's disciples had no understanding of the Holy Spirit (at least from the perspective of the early church), we would say that they were not really baptized as Christians and so this doesn't count as re-baptism.

Some traditions that emphasize adult baptism may wonder at the United Methodist prohibition on re-baptism.  We do not think that those in other traditions who re-baptize are sinning, we are just putting the emphasis on different things.

Adult baptism or Believer's baptism is where someone makes their own repentance of sin and profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  In infant or children's baptism, this is done by parents or guardians and the newly baptized will complete this for themselves at their confirmation.  For those who re-baptize, the emphasis is on the decision the individual is making publicly for Jesus Christ.  It is a commitment of the individual in faith to God through Jesus Christ.

A United Methodist understanding places the emphasis in baptism on God's commitment to that individual.  If God has committed to us, God remains faithful to us even though we may stray.

Our United Methodist understanding of Baptism, By Water and the Spirit makes this point clearly:
The claim that baptism is unrepeatable rests on the steadfast faithfulness of God. God’s initiative establishes the covenant of grace into which we are incorporated in baptism. By misusing our God-given freedom, we may live in neglect or defiance of that covenant, but we cannot destroy God’s love for us. When we repent and return to God, the covenant does not need to be remade, because God has always remained faithful to it. What is needed is renewal of our commitment and reaffirmation of our side of the covenant.
We also see the sons of Sceva, Jewish itinerant exorcists, using the name of Jesus to cast out demons.  This may remind us of Luke's gospel story in 9:49-50:
John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”
Moses had similar feelings for those who are doing good things for God.  However, the effectiveness of these would-be exorcists in Acts is less than they would desire.

Both of these stories - the baptism of John's followers and the ineffectiveness of the Jewish exorcists - point toward an authority that is found in the early church.  Luke is making clear that God is working through this new thing and if you want to really be connected with God, you will get on board!

How do we ascribe authority to the church today?  How is our prayer life more effective when we join with other believers?  How does our knowledge and understanding of scripture increase?  I believe that these latter two questions are two of the ways that we see the Holy Spirit at work in our lives today.  And as we pursue these things, we live out our baptismal covenant and try to be as faithful to God as God is to us.

Prayer for the day:

God, with your help, we will proclaim the good news
   and live according to the example of Christ.
God, with your help, we will surround the others in our congregation
    with a community of love and forgiveness,
    that we all may grow in our service to others.
God, with your help, we will pray for the others in our congregation
  that we all may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
Amen.

Prayer based on the congregational baptismal response of The United Methodist Church.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 25

Scripture Reading: Acts 18:1-28 (NRSV)

This quilt hangs in the entryway of the
National Council of Churches USA office in NYC.
We see Paul on the move again and strengthening the church throughout the Mediterranean.  He founds the church at Corinth and we get to see several names of people that Paul mentions in his letters such as Aquila and Priscilla, Crispus who Paul mentions that he baptized, Sosthenes and Apollos.

We see Paul's standard movement to engage Jews in the synagogue to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah.  He also gets fed up as he states in verse six, "Your blood be on your own heads!  I am innocent.  From now on I will go to the Gentiles."

We see Sosthenes beaten for the faith - he must have left at some point with Paul because Paul includes him as writing to the church at Corinth at the beginning of 1 Corinthians.

We also see how there was not necessarily one doctrine of following Jesus in that time period.  It was so new and communication would be so limited that various movements could pop up without the knowledge or consent of the apostles.  Apollos knows of Jesus but had only received the baptism of John which was for repentance but did not include receiving the Holy Spirit.  Luke mentions as much:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.                   Luke 3:15-16
This will become more apparent in the next chapter of Acts.  Division over who had the proper teaching would happen soon enough across the church.  When you think about how many different denominations (or non-denominations as if you could somehow move yourself outside of Christian history) there are today, you can see how easily it comes to humanity.  Paul seeks to curb this in the Corinthians when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3:3-4:
For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
This begs the question that if the Holy Spirit unifies rather than divides, is it a lack of the Holy Spirit within the church or are we merely not paying attention to its witness among us?  When we are divided physically and unable to meet with one another (as has been the case recently), there is often a longing to gather regardless of our differences.  Can arguments or disagreements be put in proper perspective of the greater work of the Holy Spirit?  Does this move us to greater love for our brothers and sisters even when they occupy a different place on a particular interpretation of scripture?

Prayer for the day:

From the cowardice
   that does not face new truths,
from the laziness
   that is content with half-truths,
from the arrogance
   that thinks it knows all the truth,
deliver us today, good Lord.
Amen.

Prayer from the church in Kenya

Photo by Scott Lenger via Fickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


 



Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 24

Scripture Reading: Acts 17:1-34 (NRSV)

Paul's stay in Thessalonica doesn't seem to have been very fruitful from Luke's description but we know that a church was indeed planted there as we have two of Paul's letters to them.

The fact that Luke states that "the Jews became jealous" give us an idea that by Luke's time, we have seen a clear separation from Judaism.  Paul argues in the synagogue for three weeks over the scriptures.  He was giving them his Christian interpretation of how the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) point toward Jesus as the Messiah.  So we see that the first seeds Paul and his companions attempt to plant in new cities were among people holding to the Jewish faith.  It is not surprising that some would embrace this understanding while others would be more conservative in their thinking and reject this new way of understanding God's work in the world.

While Paul and Silas leave the conflict behind, there were believers that stayed behind and likely had a lot of persecution for maintaining in this new faith.  Paul says as much in 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
We see that in spite of persecution, the new believers have not only embraced the faith but have become witnesses to it.

The Porch of the Maidens in Athens shows
some of the artistic expression devoted
to religion in Paul's day.
Paul eventually ends up in Athens.  We see Christian "philosophy" on stage with Epicureanism and Stoicism.  We can see how these views would conflict while they also might share some commonalities.  Epicurus did not believe in life after death and so the resurrection would have seemed to be babbling as verse 18 states.  Stoicism looked for moral and intellectual achievement rather than emotional passions for happiness and may have appreciated some of the teachings of Jesus that Paul would have passed along.

Paul begins to intertwine his understanding of God within their current culture as he defines for them the "unknown god" that they are worshiping.  Rather than cast this down as pagan worship, he re-imagines that this is God whom they are already worshiping.  Later Wesleyans would identify this as Prevenient or Preceding Grace - where God is already present in the world prior to Paul's arrival or their knowledge of Christianity.

As we think about how we relate our faith to the world around us, it may be helpful for us to see where God is already at work in "secular" culture.  Adopting Paul's graciousness, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way," would be helpful.  When we point out the virtues of the people we see, we are more likely to create good-will than if we start off with judgments of where they are failing.

If you are to look at news of events in the world today, where do you see God's presence?  As we see the difficulties the coronavirus is causing, where do you see places where people are being selfless?  Finally, how can we allow God to work through our lives during all the changes going on?  Sometimes it may be as simple as choosing to be positive rather than let our fears shape our reactions toward the negative.  In this way, we might be like those Thessalonians who not only endured persecution but witnessed to all the world while doing so.

Prayer for the day:

O Lord my God,
   teach my heart where and how to seek you,
   where and how to find you.
   Lord, if you are not here but absent,
      where shall I seek you?
   But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
   why then do I not seek you?
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
   which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
   but I believe so that I may understand;
      and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.
Amen.

Prayer by Anselm of Canterbury, 11th-12th century

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.