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.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 23

Scripture Reading: Acts 16:16-40 (NRSV)

As far as we know, this is Silas's first time behind bars.  He's also beaten with a rod - enough to require his wounds to need washing a half a day later.  I wonder if he was thinking, "Who is this that I've gotten mixed up with?"

Did your parents ever tell you to watch out for who your friends are?

Their trouble starts when Paul gets annoyed by a slave-girl who keeps saying good things about them.  He seems to exorcise her of her outside spirit as a casual aside.  Unfortunately, her owners get upset and have Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison.

We see another miracle jail break except that Paul and Silas don't take the clue.  They remain imprisoned and save the life of their captor.  It seems that Paul doesn't ever miss an opportunity to witness.

It is likely that his jailer and family were some of the first members of the church at Philippi.  And so when Paul writes to them they would understand that he knows what he's talking about:
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.    (Philippians 3:8-9)
How many guards think about receiving
grace from their inmates?
We see some of Paul's brashness when he is released from prison and refuses to go!  He knows that Roman citizens were not permitted to be scourged.  I wonder at this point if Silas was thinking, "how many times does God have to free us before we are going to go?"  It must have given him great confidence in Paul's sense of wisdom when the magistrates actually come and apologize!

Then they ask them to leave the city.  Silas may be thinking, "We'll be happy to go!" but Paul makes a final stop back at Lydia's so that he can make sure the witness - the fellowship of the church - will continue after they are gone.  We have Paul's letter to the Philippians to know that he was successful in this enterprise.

When have you experienced blessing after hardship?  Sometimes we don't see them together but it may be that we need to look back at our lives to see what we can discover.  My guess is that you'll see your own comforters that pop up at odd times and places in your review.  How might we help to ease someone else's burdens?  In this we open ourselves to the workings of the Spirit that seeks to intercede for the good in all people's lives.

Prayer for the day:

Almighty God,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
intellect to understand you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you
and life to proclaim you,
through the power of the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Prayer by Benedict of Nursia, Italy, 6th Century

Photo by Jobs for Felons Hub 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, March 22, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Acts 16:1-15 (NRSV)

Here we have the first appearance in Acts of Timothy who accompanies Paul on his journeys.  It may seem a bit like a double-standard when Luke mentions that Paul had Timothy circumcised.  This comes right after the Council of Jerusalem stated that Gentiles need not be circumcised.  Paul writes a pretty clear statement about it to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 7:17-20:
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.  Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.  Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.
It could be that because Timothy's mother was Jewish, other Jewish people they encountered would not be able to hear the message because of their preoccupation with Timothy's status.  Paul does later state in the same letter in 1 Corinthians 9:20:
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. 
This reminds us of how contextual the gospel message can be.  We have already seen James the son of Zebedee and Stephen killed and so we also recognize that this is a dangerous business.   This is likely why Luke records in verse six that the Holy Spirit forbid them to speak the word in Asia.

They cross into Europe coming to Philippi.  We have Paul's letter to the Philippians in which he includes Timothy in his by-line in the first verse.  While they are there to find a man from a vision, they encounter women down by the river on the sabbath.  Paul seems ready to preach the word as opportunity provides.  Lydia is a business woman who is the head of her household.  Paul and Timothy indulge in her hospitality.

Luke reminds us that women play an important role in the church leadership including financial assistance beginning in the ministry of Jesus.  Luke 8:1-3 records:
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Brooke Williams and Jana Green at church camp
when in high school in 2002.  They led Bible study
together in their youth group.  Both are in ministry today -
Brooke in lay ministry in Kingfisher and Jana in
ordained ministry in Little Rock.
The fact that Luke lifts up women in multiple places may have been needed at the time for while it would have been more acceptable in some of the Gentile cultures the church was moving into, the Jewish patriarchy would still have been resistant.  Today women in ministry within United Methodism serve in all areas of leadership.  We don't differentiate how the Spirit calls us by gender.  But there are also encounters that our clergy and lay female leaders still have today that are hostile.  We are not yet where we need to be as far as our overall acceptance within our local churches but we have made great strides toward this. 

As you think about your own attitudes concerning female spiritual leadership, do you ever find yourself hesitant or dismissive of women in ministry?  If so, does this align with how the Holy Spirit was moving in the beginnings of the church in tearing down barriers?  And if you don't have issues around God and gender, what female pastor has shaped you that might appreciate a cheerful word of encouragement as she ministers today?

For today's prayer, I really liked this poem by Teresa of Avila and thought we could meditate on it in prayer.

Prayer for the day:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Prayer by Teresa of Avila, 16th 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.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 22

Scripture Reading: Acts 15:1-41 (NRSV)

We see in this chapter the council of Jerusalem that formally develops a doctrine surrounding circumcision.  Were Christianity only to remain a sect of Judaism, this would never come up as the circumcision of males would be assumed.

The covenant that God makes with Abraham is very clear in Genesis 17:9-14:
God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
This seems pretty direct.  Even foreign slaves should submit to this covenant which would speak in favor of Gentiles being circumcised if they want to be a part of the people of God.

But the more Christianity moves into the Mediterranean, the more push back we see regarding this issue.  The Greeks thought that circumcision was barbaric and there was prejudice in this culture against males who were circumcised.  The inter-Testamental book of 1 Maccabees 1:11-15 shows that there was even Jewish resistance to circumcision:
In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles.  So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.
So there is precedent in Jewish tradition in how they were to deal with this incursion of Greek culture: resist and continue to be faithful to God's covenant!

The difference here seems to be that the Gentile converts to Christianity have received the Holy Spirit just as Jewish believers, showing that God "has made no distinction between them and us." (Acts 15.9).  If the Holy Spirit is a gift from God, then God seems to declare that circumcision is inconsequential with regards to this new covenant in Jesus Christ. 

What is fascinating is that in Acts, Peter is shown as the early adopter of sharing faith with Gentiles while in Galatians, Paul states that he is now the authority of Gentile evangelism:
On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.      (Galatians 2:7-9)
Many scholars seem to think that Galatians 2:1-10 is Paul's version of the Council of Jerusalem but others dispute this because it disagrees with much of Acts 15. 

Within Acts, this council seems to end peacefully enough with allowances to the uncircumcised as long as they continue to observe some purity laws around diet and sexuality.  Paul does seem to ignore the dietary laws while observing those concerning immorality in 1 Corinthians 10.

I'm not sure this shirt is accomplishing its intent!
While we may think they escaped without much contention, Luke does acknowledge that Paul and Barnabas split ways here.  Should Paul have been more forgiving of John Mark who he saw as a deserter?  It just goes to show us that the Christian fruit of the Spirit that Paul lifts up such as patience, kindness and generosity are sometimes easier to display in theory rather than in practice.

As Christians looking back on this ancient history, we may appreciate both Paul and Barnabas and wonder why they couldn't have worked things out.  In the moment, things can burn so hot!  In situations that may cause a split or arguments so sharp that we part company, how can we fast forward to a time of peace where we can look back and find greater love for one another?

It may be that we allow each other to go in ministry each to our own context.  But might we go with one another's blessing rather than a curse?

Prayer for the day:

God, let us mean it when we sing together,
When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
we'll sing and shout the victory!
Help us to live out this assumption more each day.
Amen.

Prayer based on lyrics by Eliza E. Hewitt, 1898.

Photo by greyloch 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, March 20, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 21

Scripture Reading: Acts 14:1-28 (NRSV)

Change is so hard.  Paul and Barnabas are putting forth changes that are difficult for the Jewish communities where they are preaching.  If we think about that setting, it is understandable.  They are still in the Galatian region where Jews would be a minority that suffered all of the things that would be standard for a religious minority in the first century.  

There can be a lot of emotion in a crowd.
Sometimes it can become dangerous.
The push against your religion from outside forces would be constant.  You would have Gentiles either making fun of you, ignoring you or outright persecuting you.  What's fascinating (if you can distance yourself to the pain the apostles were facing) is that Jews and Gentiles were stirred up against them.  Is this the case that some Gentiles felt like, "We're the only ones that can mess with the Jews" or were they God-fearers who had already adopted the Jewish faith?

Whatever the case, this didn't stop Paul and Barnabas from preaching the life-altering story of Jesus.

Later in Lystra, Paul heals a man crippled from birth.  Ironically, Paul who was Saul was named after the first king of Israel.  The original Saul had a grandson, Mephibosheth, who was crippled in his feet since he was five.  He was shown mercy by King David who might have seen Mephibosheth as a political threat (he would have had his own claim to the throne).

Following this miraculous healing, Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods, Hermes and Zeus.  This would not be surprising for a Gentile crowd since they would relate miracles to their own faith experience.  How else would we make sense of something supernatural than to relate it to what we know?

Paul and Barnabas have the appropriate apprehension to this misnaming.  Earlier in Acts when Herod Agrippa is mistaken for a god, he lets people assume what they want and we see a different outcome:
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them.  The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”  And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.                                                                            Acts 12:21-23 (NRSV)
We see the fickleness of the crowd as people like a good stoning as much as adoration.  Paul miraculously lives through people throwing rocks at him with the intent to kill after the crowd assumed him dead.

It is out of persecution that the church actually grows.  The apostles are beginning to appoint elders in each church to oversee the local work there.   If you were putting together a marketing plan to attract leadership, I would not put "likelihood of getting strung up" as a selling point.

When we see something true that moves us beyond ourselves, we are willing to die for it.  This is a part of the spirituality of humanity.  We are called to connect beyond ourselves.  To do so when we can see it provides deeper meaning for people's lives is worth the risk.  We say, "Sign me up."

Where do you encounter deeper meaning in your life?  What would an effective witness to this meaning from you look like in the world today?  Who might be opposed to it?

Prayer for the day:

O Lord, who seest that all hearts
are empty except Thou fill them,
and all desires balked except they crave after Thee;
give us light and grace to seek and find Thee,
that we may be Thine and Thou mayest be ours forever.  Amen.

Prayer by Christina G. Rossetti, England, 19th Century

Photo by Mike Lowe 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.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 20

Scripture Reading: Acts 13:26-52 (NRSV)

Paul continues his preaching to the Galatians of Antioch in Pisidia.  Note that he is speaking primarily to Jews living in that region along with God-fearers - Gentiles who have adopted the Jewish faith.  He speaks of the ignorance of those religious leaders in their faith in Jerusalem.  Some might not take offense at this (being so far away) but others likely would. 

Paul speaks of the resurrection of Jesus.  He lifts up various Hebrew scriptures to show that this already aligns within their belief structure.  First he lifts up Psalm 2:7 to declare that this was actually talking about Jesus.  Psalm 2 was originally used as an enthronement hymn - likely used in the coronation ceremony of Israel's kings.

Next Paul turns to the release from corruption (as a corpse) by quoting Isaiah 55:3:
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
This indicates the Messianic line that will emerge and which Christians see fulfilled in Jesus.  Then Paul continues with the resurrection from Psalm 16:10 which states:
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
    or let your faithful one see the Pit.
This psalm first expressed the idea that the faithful will not perish in the current turmoil they are experiencing.  Paul relates it specifically to Jesus.

Finally Paul recognizes that this may be incredulous to many.  This evidently isn't the first time God has worked in the world only to be ignored.  Paul quotes Habakkuk 1:5:
Look at the nations, and see!
    Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
    that you would not believe if you were told.  
The fact that these scriptures originally referred to other points or contexts is more of a 21st Century critique that wouldn't have held water in the first century.  For Paul, all things point to Christ.  It is something he doesn't have to justify, rather this lens justifies everything else.

As predicted, Paul encounters significant opposition.  While some Jews would have adopted this new lens as well, Paul recognizes that it may be the Gentiles that actually have less reservations to this new turn in God's story.  With this split, we may see how God continued to work with the Jews who remained in their faith and also with the Christians who were starting something new.

Paul turns once again to Isaiah, quoting 49:6:
(God) says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  
This "light to the nations" theology continues to push the church into new territories.  If there are places that won't listen, we must move forward.  As Paul and Barnabas shake off the dust of their feet, it reminds us that Jesus told his disciples to do this if they were not appreciated in Luke 10:11 when they were going from town to town:
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
Some places take more clapping off than others!
This custom comes from those Jewish people re-entering the Promised Land.  Because the dust from a foreign country was considered unclean, they were to shake it off their sandals before tracking it into God's holy region.  So by doing this, the disciples are making a point that those who did not receive them are not real Jews and have more in common with heathens.

This last response (leaving) may be challenging to us.  There are many places or times when we want to stay and fight.  Certainly, we need to make our point.  But if it is not being regarded, could it be that we need to shake the dust off our feet and move on?  Where have I stayed too long in argument?  When have I stayed not to change minds or convey my point but rather to get as many barbs in as possible?  If the lens of Christ is our primary reality, how do we not only share the resurrection but also live out the resurrection in the everyday?

Prayer for the day:

Lord God almighty, open my heart and enlighten by the grace of your Holy Spirit, that I may seek what is well-pleasing to your will;
direct my thoughts and affections to think and to do such things as may make me worthy to attain to your unending joys in heaven;
and so order my doings after your commandments that I may be ever diligent to fulfill them, and be found everlastingly rewarded from you.  Amen.

Prayer by Bede, England, 8th Century

Photo by drgillybean 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, March 18, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 19

Scripture Reading: Acts 13:1-25 (NRSV)

Laying on of hands in prayer
is still a powerful way to
send forth those in mission today.
We have an eclectic group at the beginning of this reading who are named prophets and teachers in Antioch.  Simeon who was called Niger which is a Latin word for black.  He was not the only African as Lucius was from Cyrene which was an African city in north Libya.  Outside of Saul and Barnabas, we only have Manaen who was a member of the court of Herod Antipas (the Herod that helped oversee the execution of Jesus).

Antioch was located in Syria and as I mentioned earlier was the third largest city in the Roman empire at the time.  It would have been quite diverse and we can see this reflected in this short list of leadership in the church.  We see the Holy Spirit present in their work as Paul and Barnabas are set aside for a new journey.  They fast and pray and lay hands on these two who will represent them in other countries.

Interestingly enough, verse nine is the last time Luke refers to Paul as Saul other than when he recounts his road to Damascus conversion story.

They sail to the island of Cyprus where they meet Elymas Bar-Jesus who was a magician.  The name Bar-Jesus means "son of Jesus" or "son of Joshua" and wouldn't have been uncommon (nothing overtly Christian to read into this name at that time).  Listed as a Jewish false prophet, we remember that magic was unthinkable to the faithful as Deuteronomy 18:9-14 shares:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.  No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.  For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.  You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God.  Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.
So when Elymas seeks to discredit the apostles, Paul invokes blindness upon him.  This has a tinge of irony to it.  Paul knows that his own transformation came from being struck blind and I believe that he is hopeful that Elymas will have a similar conversion experience.  He doesn't say that it will be permanent but for "a while."

Paul and Barnabas end up in a different Antioch than where they started, this one being in Galatia.  Luke recounts his initial ministry here before Paul begins to write to these churches in Galatians.  As Paul relates the history of the Jewish people, we find that for Paul it ends in Jesus.  We will stop today's reading with John the Baptist who came to straighten the crooked paths.  Note that Elymas was credited for making crooked the straight paths of the Lord.

I think the diversity of the leadership of the early church led to its success in such a diverse Roman empire.  Within the 21st century, we are seeing more and more racial diversity in our world today.  We know that people do tend to congregate in what is familiar or similar and so while neighborhoods may often change in their racial make-up, churches are sometimes the last things to adjust.  I think the question each person can ask is, "Does our church reflect the racial make-up of our neighborhood where it's located?"  Most of the time our answer is, "We could do better."  So if this is the case, we can then reflect, "Are any of my attitudes making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?"

Prayer for the day:

Father, we call Thee Father because we love Thee. We are glad to
be called Thy children, and to dedicate our lives to the service
that extends through willing hearts and hands to the betterment
of all mankind. We send a cry of Thanksgiving for people of all
races, creeds, classes, and colors the world over, and pray that
through the instrumentality of our lives the spirit of peace, joy,
fellowship, and brotherhood shall circle the world. We know that
this world is filled with discordant notes, but help us, Father, to
so unite our efforts that we may all join in one harmonious
symphony for peace and brotherhood, justice, and equality of
opportunity for all men. The tasks performed today with
forgiveness for all our errors, we dedicate, dear Lord, to Thee.
Grant us strength and courage and faith and humility sufficient
for the tasks assigned to us.  Amen.

Prayer by Mary McLeod Bethune, African-American educator, activist and columnist, early 20th century

Photo by John Ragai 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 17, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 18

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

We see another Herod on the throne.  This passage refers to Herod Agrippa who came to power in A.D. 41.  He was the grandson of Herod the Great who Matthew describes orchestrating the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem.

We can see the family penchant to violence as Agrippa has James, the son of Zebedee killed.  We also see Peter arrested for the third time.  He is miraculously freed and this is the second time he has had an angel intervene in his incarceration.

The safe house where he finds himself may be the house of the writer of the Gospel of Mark.  When he shows up, and Rhoda reports that he was outside, they don't believe her.  Luke has shown this kind of doubt among believers before as women tried to attest to the resurrection in Luke 24:10-11:
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
You would think they wouldn't be so surprised after they had already taken part in this kind of escape.

Peter decides to be prudent this time and moves to Caesarea which is on the coast.  Not a bad place to end up - I'm sure they need to hear the word just as much where there's an ocean view.

While Peter escapes to greener pastures, we see the ultimate demise of Herod Agrippa as he lets his ego get the best of him.  Josephus records this same story in Book 19 of his Antiquities of the Jews.  It is found in section two of chapter eight.

Sometimes beauty refuses to be caged.
Here we see Luke transition back to Saul with Barnabus and John Mark who was the son of the owner of the safe house where Peter stayed.

As this chapter unfolds, we see death but also miraculous release.  We see evil suffer its own consequences.  We see the witness to the world continue to expand in spite of opposition.

Today, the opposition may look different.  As a pastor, it feels very strange to close the church - even temporarily.  I especially find this a difficult proposition for worship.  Fortunately, in a digital age, we can continue to worship together online.  The opposition may be our inability to adjust.  There are parts of corporate worship that we'll miss.  If we deem online worship a little too strange, we won't bother to engage.  It won't capture 100% of our normal participants.  But it will also capture those who normally wouldn't show up in person.

What kind of miracle could come from all this?  Where will life be shared that otherwise may not have heard?  How can you participate in your faith in new ways that are helpful to you and to others?

Prayer for the day:

God, help us in our trust of your presence.
We are like the apostles in that when presented with a miracle, we scoff.
Could it be that while we are convincing ourselves that this couldn't possibly be happening, another may be transformed?
Open us to where you are still working in our lives - even today, amidst all the fear and frustrations.
And when we find opposition to our faith, may we have to look outside ourselves to find the source.
Amen.

Photo by Hendrik Wieduwilt 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 16, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 17

Scripture Reading: Acts 11:19-29 (NRSV)

We see the scattering of the devout that was first referenced in chapter 8

The Jewish diaspora that was ongoing prior to these events put pockets of Judaism on the map throughout the known world.  The early Christians meant to share their faith with those communities because they would be the natural recipients of a perspective that could be seen as essentially Jewish at the time.  Of course, some argued that it broke too far from Judaism and so there was persecution.

But even though the original recipients of the faith may have seen that sharing it to the ends of the earth meant for it to move among the Jewish populations already present, it begins to go beyond their expectations and understanding.

Persecution seems to do the opposite of the intended suppression.  It breaks out into the wider world and becomes unstoppable.

Here I'm enjoying a meal in Mexico outside of
a home we were building.  I was there to provide
bread and life for the community and found that
the woman who fixed this meal gave it to me instead! 
We see the faith travel to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch among the Jewish communities there.  Then in Antioch which is the third largest city in the Roman Empire, we see it jump to the Hellenists.  These were likely Greek-speaking Jews which shows some distance between them and their fellows who could still speak their native tongue.  One could see how this would quickly jump to other Greek-speaking non-Jews. 


Truth is truth, no matter the language or culture.  People will share truth.

As our routines are disrupted from the Coronavirus, we may have a variety of responses.  We might be afraid or irritated or annoyed.  We simply may be unsure about what will happen. 

What does the truth of the Christian witness say to those who are infected?  We see the early church respond to a famine that was worldwide to them (in their knowledge).  How do we make a difference even in our attitude toward one another in this time of crisis?

Prayer for the day:

God, we cannot love you unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.  God, we know you in the breaking of the bread, and we know each other in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore.  We see that Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust where there is companionship.  Help us to live out this faith in Christ.  Amen.


Prayer adapted from the Postscript of The Long Loneliness, the Autobiography of Dorothy Day, (Harper and Row, 1963).

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Third Sunday in Lent

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

Is this little outsider how Peter saw
Cornelius and the other Gentiles?
Peter has some explaining to do.

Notice that his fellow apostles aren't immediately enthused about the success Peter has had in spreading the faith.  Rather, they criticized him for interacting and eating with Gentiles.

The fact that Luke retells the story that he just shared in the previous chapter should give us a clue as to how controversial this remained in Luke's church.

Leviticus 11 gives a long outline on which animals are considered clean and unclean.  It summarizes the discourse by ending with this idea in verses 46-47:
This is the law pertaining to land animal and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms upon the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.
In other words, basic to their cultural identity was to be discriminating.  In fact, you had stories such as Daniel who lived in the royal palace in Babylon but refused to eat anything but vegetables so that he wouldn't defile himself. 

Is it any wonder that Peter would receive some hostile feedback on his missionary journey?

After Peter relates everything that happened, I like how Luke records that "they were silenced."  Then they praised God but I wonder if "praised" fully encompassed all that they felt in that moment.

Experience reminds us that it is one thing to be transformed by the people we encounter but it is distancing to hear about it from someone else.  Doubts are more likely to creep in, especially when something fundamental to our identity is being dismissed.

Within my lifetime, one cultural change that seems minor today (in comparison to what Peter was trying to do) is eating and drinking in the sanctuary.  It was considered at one time the height of disrespect to even bring any drinking cup or glass into the sanctuary.  This still bothers some Christians and there seems a direct correlation between the age of the person to the amount of irritation it causes.  When I was appointed at Piedmont, we built the sanctuary to also double as a fellowship hall.  Chairs could be rearranged and tables brought in to provide meals for the congregation and community.  Many older members were disturbed by this multipurpose use of the sanctuary.

While no one came to blows over this, it wasn't near as ingrained as the dietary laws were in Peter's time.  His story today reminds us to reassess our own resistance to change.  Where is the next generation of Christians moving us that seems uncomfortable?  What do we hear that silences us?

Prayer for the Day:

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth revere him.


Photo by charamelody 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.