June 26, 2011

Beggar at the Beautiful Gate

First, a personal prayer of thanksgiving to God who triumphs over wind and fire, and thanks to firefighters putting themselves in danger to protect life and property at all the wildfires burning across the Southwest US, esp. outside Sierra Vista, AZ.

An interview was recently discovered and translated, dating from not long after the first Pentecost. Below is the transcript. (Acts 3)

Ezra: This is Ezra bar Amos reporting from the Temple in Jerusalem. I have with me Benoni bar Jonah. Tell me what happened, Benoni.

Ben: It was the hour of Mincha. Each day someone in my family brings me to the Beautiful Gate.

Ezra: Why does your family bring you here?

Ben: It started when I was a child. My mother would come to pray in the Court of Women for healing of my lameness. She left me at the entrance so I would not defile the Temple with my infirmity.

Ezra: So you are lame? You look perfectly healthy to me.

Ben: I was born with a deformed leg and foot. Until this afternoon I have never walked.

Ezra: Pardon me for being skeptical, but you were just leaping around inside and dancing.

Ben: Let me tell you what happened.

Ezra: You have been begging at the Beautiful Gate for years, then?

Ben: Yes, since I was a child. Today was different though. I was in my usual place. Most people don’t even look at me. Some toss a coin my way as a mitzvah before entering the Temple.

Ezra: Mitzvah is a good deed.

Ben: Yes. I saw a pair of men approaching. They were obviously not from Jerusalem.

Ezra: How do you know?

Ben: When you sit where I have for over 40 years, you know the local worshippers and you recognize the foreigners.

Ezra: Where were these men from?

Ben: I would say Galilee. Anyway, I held up my hand. “Perform a mitzvah, give alms for the lame beggar.”

Ezra: Quite a wheedling voice you have.

Ben: Yes, well, I won’t need it again.

Ezra: Then what happened.

Ben: The men stopped and looked at me. The older man said “Look at us.” I sat up straighter, expecting a coin…

Ezra: Well?

Ben: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth stand up and walk.”

Ezra: What?

Ben: That is what the big man said. Then he took my arm and pulled me to my feet. It felt like fire was running down my legs. When he released my arm, I thought I would fall. But I didn’t! I stood by myself! For the first time in my life!

Ezra: Pretty amazing.

Ben: Yes! I was so excited that I raced through the Court of Women into the Temple! Everyone heard me shouting. “Praise God! I am whole! I am healed!” I don’t really know what I said. It was exhilerating to walk and run on my own legs.

Ezra: What happened to the men?

Ben: I raced back to hug and thank them. People started running toward us. The men turned and walked toward Solomon’s Portico. I stayed beside them.

Ezra: Why did they go to Solomon’s Portico? I thought they were going to worship.

Ben: Maybe they were trying, like me, to get away from the crowd. Men were arguing. Some said, “It’s the beggar who always sits at the Beautiful Gate.” Others laughed at them. “It cannot be him. This man is not a cripple.”

Ezra: But the crowd stayed with you.

Ben: Yes. That’s when the older man, Peter is his name, turned to face them and started speaking. Gradually the crowd quieted down as he talked.

Ezra: What did he say?

Ben: I will never forget it. He started out with my own unspoken question. “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”

Ezra: So it wasn’t these men who healed you?

Ben: No. Peter gave credit to the Living God. “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has glorified his servant Jesus. You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”

Ezra: Raised from the dead?

Ben: Even I have heard the rumors that the rabbi Jesus was seen by many in the city after he was crucified and buried. Peter went on to say, “To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”

Ezra: Did you believe in this Jesus?

Ben: I do now.

Ezra: Did Peter say anything else?

Ben: Yes. He challenged the crowd to repent and quoted Moses who promised, “The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. Everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out from the people.”

Ezra: That’s pretty harsh.

Ben: Peter said Jesus is the fulfillment of what Abraham meant when he said “In your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Peter challenged the crowd saying, “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

Ezra: Where are these men now?

Ben: They were arrested by the Captain of the Temple guard because the Sadducees ordered it.

Ezra: How does that make you feel?

Ben: I am sorry. I wanted to hear more from them. So did many of those in the crowd. I plan to seek out those who speak about Jesus and learn more.

Ezra: Thank you for your time. This is Ezra bar Amos reporting from Solomon’s Portico at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Benoni and 5000 others became followers of Jesus that day. Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to heal the beggar and lives were changed. Peter did not take credit for the miracle, but pointed directly to Jesus and God. That is what we, too, should do.

Have you ever felt moved to do something in the name of God, but held back because you were afraid or embarrassed about what others might think? Lives are changed when we allow God to work through us.

Next weekend is the 4th of July when we look at how the Spirit moved in the establishment of our nation.

On July 10 we’ll see what happens when Peter testifies before the Sanhedrin, as we continue our look at this great story of the actions of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men and women of the early church and gain inspiration from them.

June 19, 2011

Peter's Sermon

Happy Father's Day to all the men in our lives who have impacted us with love, care, guidance, discipline, and all the things that make us wise adults. Happy Father's Day to the men who have been a glimpse of God the Father to each of us. Give thanks for them.

We’re looking at the men and women, changed by the Holy Spirit, found in the Book of Acts. The first one we meet is Peter. Like many of us, Peter struggled with understanding his place in God’s plan.

As Jesus’ disciple, we see him boldly proclaiming “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:15), but the next minute he is rebuking and being rebuked by Jesus. (Matthew 16:22-23). We see him bravely stepping out on the water (Matthew 14:28) but sinking “when he saw the wind…he cried out, ‘Lord save me.’” (Matthew 14:30). He denies Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest (Matthew 26:69-75). However, when fishing after the Resurrection he “sprang into the sea” to get to Jesus on the shore. (John 21:7-8)

In Acts 1:15-22, he appears to have taken on leadership of the group when he suggests “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…must become with us a witness to this resurrection.”

It is Peter who addresses the crowd in Acts 2:14-17. His first words are a refutation of the rumor that he and the others are drunk. “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…’”

He goes on to make an amazing and perhaps inflammatory claim. “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know…you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power...” (Acts 2:22-24)

Peter’s first sermon has an amazing affect on the crowd. Rather than turning on him as a blasphemer or madman, “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (Acts 2:41) The uneducated fisherman from Galilee was changed by the Holy Spirit and spoke with power not with fear. Unlike the vacillating, frightened man in the courtyard of Caiphas, Peter knew and believed “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)

Aren’t we like Peter? We can be bold and brave with our faith one minute, cowering and uncertain the next. What is different about Peter after the Resurrection and esp. after Pentecost?

Peter was transformed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He spoke boldly and he remained in the community of faith. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)

We are not supposed to be alone in our walk with God. John Wesley once said, “There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.” Friends in faith are a living example of the lesson found in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. “Two are better than one…For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help…A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

I have a church family, I belong to church ministries, and I have a small group of close Christian women who I meet with regularly for support. They are important to my continuing Christian walk. We pray for each other when things go badly, “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). Do you have Christian friends who can support you and encourage you?

God does not mean for us to ‘go it alone.’ That is why we were given the Holy Spirit and the community of faith. Like Peter, we vacillate. Like Peter, we can be bold and proclaim our faith. Brothers and sisters in Christ can help us grow in the Lord as we help them. We can be like the first converts who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

Next week we will see what happened to Peter and John as they continued to act in the power of the Spirit of the Living God. Meanwhile, I challenge you to find a small group of fellow Christians to walk with on your journey. It will make a difference.

Check out the new "Prayer" page, too on this blog, and join in praying for those in need.

June 12, 2011


Pentecost recalls an event familiar to most Christians. Familiar, yes, but still rather unfathomable. The author (Luke) begins the Book of Acts by recounting the days after the resurrection when Jesus “presented himself alive to [his followers].” He then “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem...‘you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:1-5) Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven after telling His followers “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-11) Obediently, the disciples returned to Jerusalem to the “room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. [they devoted] themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:12-14)

The disciples had experienced a lot of change in the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. They had swung from the depths of despair at His death, to amazed, confused, joy and wonder at his resurrection. Everything seemed almost normal again. They took comfort from being with Jesus again in the familiar places, like the Sea of Galilee. Then, once again Jesus left them, in a most unexpected way-by ascending into the clouds! Wisely the men and women gathered in prayer to wait and see what was going to happen next. Like them, when we are in the midst of change in our lives, it is good to stop and pray for clarity.

The faithful followers gathered in that upper room could not have anticipated what was coming or how great a change it would cause in their lives and in the world as they knew it. It is all there in three short verses of Acts Chapter 2:
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”

It must have been pretty amazing, frightening, and certainly transformative for the disciples. While quietly praying, they are assaulted with the sound of a “violent wind” and “tongues, as of fire”. Recently we have seen violent winds changing lives and wreaking havoc. Fires, too, have been in the news, esp. in the southwest where they’ve scorched acres and acres of land and devoured homes in their path. (In fact this photo is of the effects of smoke from a fire in AZ on the air in Albuquerque-a couple hundred miles away.)  
People, in the path of wildfires, talk about deciding what is important to them. “I have my quilts and sewing machine. He has his guns,” said one woman interviewed recently about what they would take if they had to evacuate ahead of a fire. Those who survive tornados, earthquakes, and tsunamis cling to loved ones and rejoice when a cherished memento or beloved pet is found safe. The many natural disasters in the news make me stop and consider what would be important enough for me to take if I needed to leave my home.

The result of any major life upheaval, whether caused by your own decision, a natural disaster, unforeseen illness or other cause, is that you are changed forever. The superficial and trivial are swept away. The wind and fire of Pentecost did the same thing for the disciples. No longer were they cowering in the upper room, wondering if they would be arrested and debating whether it would be best to return to the old, familiar fishing trade. Instead, these men and women were emboldened to address the crowd that gathered.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’” (Acts 2:4-11)

The Holy Spirit is still acting in lives every day. Sometimes we experience a life transforming experience of the Holy Spirit on a renewal weekend like Cursillo, Walk to Emmaus, or Kairos. People who have gone through a life changing illness or disaster also know of the preserving and healing power of God’s Holy Spirit. What about the day to day “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau talks about? The Holy Spirit can transform those lives, too.

How seriously do we take the action of God’s Spirit in our lives? Do people look at us “amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12) Is my life any different because of Pentecost?

The liturgical season of Pentecost stretches from now to the beginning of Advent. It’s a time to examine what it means to live as a ‘Resurrection People’. Maybe it’s a time for you and me to rediscover what it means to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging thoughts about how the Holy Spirit changed the ordinary men and women in the Book of Acts. They left behind their old ways and stepped out in faith to preach the Good News. Come along and see if you have thoughts to add.

June 5, 2011

Transformation-Light to the Nations

For the past 6 weeks, we’ve been on a journey, looking at transformation. We’ve traveled with Barbara Brown Taylor* and her book Gospel Medicine and with Edward Hays’ St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail.* Along the way we’ve found some surprises-or at least I did. Transformation can only happen when we acknowledge we are broken and scarred. Transformation comes at a cost and often requires wrestling with God who sometimes seems to be absent. Messengers come to offer guidance and ultimately we are faced with judgment-the turning around of our lives. Slowly, eventually we start to understand that the scars are part of who we are and that it is in embracing them that we can become whole and holy people of God.

Responding to God’s call to Transformation turns our ‘world upside down.’ The things we thought important, somehow become less important. Men and women in the Bible learned this over and over again. Abram in Genesis becomes Abraham (father of many nations), but not in the way he anticipated. Naomi (Book of Ruth) thinks her life is over because her husband and sons are dead. Instead, God gives her a new family through the devotion of her daughter-in-law Ruth. Simon in the New Testament is given the new name of Petros (Peter the rock) by Jesus, but it is many years before he grasps what that means in terms of leading the fledgling church. Anyone you look at in the Bible and God’s servants today, will have similar stories of how the life they had planned did not turn out the way they expected. Instead it ended up much better, even though it was a walk through fire.

Taylor closes her book with a look at Mary and Joseph, two people whose ‘yes’ to God changed the world. She says that we can decide to say no when God visits you. “You smooth your hair and go back to…whatever it is that is most familiar to you and you pretend that nothing has happened. If you life begins to change anyway, you have several options…[ignore it…become angry…bitter]…or you can decide to say yes…to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees…Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid…it just means that you are not willing to let your fear stop you.”

Accepting the call of God to be transformed and carry the light of God into the world, however, is not something you do in your own strength. Too often we (and I speak for myself here) think that it’s all up to us to be “extraordinary: extra thoughtful, extra friendly, extra involved…you burn your candle at both ends…You begin to wonder whether it is God you are serving or only your own ego.” (Taylor) 

Taylor points to Isaiah 49 as our reference when we feel burned out.
"Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.’
And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he 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.’"(Isaiah 49:1-9)

The Servant in Isaiah knows God has called him, but he claims “I have labored in vain.” However God answers him by assuring the Servant that he will be “a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Jesus uses the same metaphor of being light in Matthew 5:14-16: "‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Early in Edward Hay’s book, the dragon gives George “a hermitage mirror.” The Dragon says, “Look into it and be alone; be quiet and you will see the shadow side of yourself which is usually invisible. You will see that what you consciously deny is there.” At the end of the book, George is ready to leave his family to go with Igor, the dragon, on the ultimate quest. Before they leave, Igor again hands the mirror to George.

“‘You don’t want to forget this.’ I took the hermitage mirror in my hand remembering my fears when I first began to see my own darkness, the dark side hidden by my blindness. As I looked into it now, I saw the garbage-the sin, the weakness, the failings that were once unbearable. I could look into the mirror and say truthfully, ‘I love you.’ And this morning I could see that I also bore the darkness and weakness of vast multitudes, of those past and those to come. And as I look at all that darkness, I could say with complete conviction, ‘I love you.’
Igor smiled as he watched and said, ‘Turn it over, George, and look in the other side.’ Slowly I turned the mirror. There on the other side was the brilliance of ten thousand sunrises-the image blinded me with its intense beauty. And out of the center of the explosion of sunburst, a golden chalice appeared-the Holy Grail!
My whole being was saturated with light, and my heart throbbed like thunder as I felt my body expanding beyond the furthest reaches of the cosmos. ‘Yes, George,’ said a voice that came from everywhere. “Thou art that.” You, George are the Holy Grail!’”

If we are as Hays implies, the Holy Grail-the container that holds the Holy, then the world is indeed upside down. Taylor says, “God’s ‘yes’ depends on our own…God’s birth requires human partners-a Mary, a Joseph, a you, and a me-willing to believe the impossible, willing to claim the scandal…accepting the whole sticky mess and rocking it in our arms…surveying a world that seems to have run amuck and proclaiming over and over again to anyone who will hear that God is still with us, that God is still being born in the mess and through it, within and among those who will still believe what angels tell them…”

Taylor states, “it is too light a thing, you servants of God, that you should spend your strength doing your duty when what you have been called to do is to ignite, enflame, combust, burn, shine with the glory of the God who has chosen you, and given you to the world, bright lights to the end of the earth.”

Are we spending too much time doing what we think is our duty and not enough time being the Holy Grail that George saw in that hermitage mirror? Is your light under a bushel or on the lampstand to light the room around you?

*quotes from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor and St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edward Hays.