August 28, 2011

Peter and Herod

For the past month we’ve seen how the Holy Spirit worked mightily in the young church. (If you've missed any, check them out in the archive for July and August.) Philip baptizes the servant of the Queen of the Ethiopians who takes the Gospel back to Ethiopia, an arch-enemy of the new movement is converted when Saul has a vision on the way to Damascus, Peter himself shares the good news with Gentiles in Cornelius’ house and then the church makes dramatic growth in Antioch under the direction of Saul and Barnabas. This is all very wonderful and it seems that everything is going well. The Gospel is being preached further and further into the Roman Empire. Men and women are turning to God and there is very little opposition (at least on the surface).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (i.e. Jerusalem) as they used to say in really old Westerns-there is still opposition from the Jewish leaders and the secular head of state. Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great, who was King when Christ was born) “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2) This must have sent shock waves through the community, but Herod’s next act is even more devastating. “He proceeded to arrest Peter also.” (Acts 12:3) The arrest was made during Passover, so Peter is put in prison with “four squads of soldiers to guard him” until after the Holy Days. Herod was taking no chances on the leader of this ‘sect’ escaping.

Herod had not counted on the Holy Spirit, however. We are told the “church prayed fervently to God for [Peter].” (Acts 12:5). And their prayers were answered. “The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.” (Acts 12:6-9)

How would you have felt if you were Peter? Imprisoned by the King and expecting the same fate as James, you suddenly see an angel telling you to follow him. The painting above by Bartolome Esteban Murillo shows Peter as he is awakened by the angel, Peter thinks he is seeing a vision of what will happen and it isn’t until they are outside the prison and “the angel left him [that] Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’” (Acts 10-11)

When Peter shows up at the “house of Mary, the mother of John Mark…a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, ‘Tell this to James [the Lesser] and to the believers.’ Then he left and went to another place.” (Acts 12:13-17)

I can understand the doubt of those gathered in Mary’s house praying. They knew that Peter was in prison. How could he be at the door? Sometimes when something we pray for actually happens, we don’t or can’t believe it at first. 

The response by the authorities was not as joyous. “There was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death.” (Acts 12:18-19) It does seem a bit unfair that the guards were put to death, but that is what we are told in the Bible. Herod then goes to Caesarea where “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Sic simper tyrannis (cartoon courtesy of “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (Acts 12:24)

What a contrast. Herod tried to take all the glory and all the power for himself. He died in his pride. Peter knew that God is in control and believed the angel was showing him a vision of his release. Then he realized it was real and he was free. He went to another place to rejoice and to preach the Good News. I imagine his testimony was even deeper because of his experience in prison where everything about his life was out of his control and he could only depend on his faith in Christ. Sometimes it takes a time of having our life out of our control for us to look to God for the answers.
The church in Jerusalem prayed for the release of Peter-and it happened. Have you ever been part of a prayer group or prayer circle that prayed for something-and it happened? How did you feel when you (and the group) realized your prayer was answered?  Did you attribute the success to your prayer or to something or someone else or even some 'coincidence'? It has been said that coincidences are God acting anonymously. Too often often we leave prayer as the last resort and are surprised when God answers.  

Jesus tells the disciples, and us, Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22) We ask for things and help from our parents and friends, expecting and believing that they will do what we ask. How much more will our loving Father give us what we ask?

Next week is Labor Day. We come to the end of the summer and look forward to the events of fall. School is starting and churches are gearing up their programs. The weather, we pray, will begin to cool and to abate. We still have several chapters of the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts to look at. I hope you are getting new insights into the Book of Acts and the life of the early church.

August 21, 2011

First called Christians

In the last post, we looked at Peter, a good Jew, who at God’s command went to Caesarea to meet with a Roman centurion, Cornelius. Cornelius and his household were converted to Christianity and were baptized. Turns out this did not sit well with the other believers.

We tend to think that the early church was all of one mind but it was made up, like churches today, of people. People don’t always agree with each other. In Acts 11:2-3 we here that “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” Peter recites his vision and tells what happened at Cornelius’ house.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:15-18)

It must have been a watershed moment in the thinking of the ‘circumcised believers’. From the beginning of Jewish history, God had been the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gentiles were outside the possibility of salvation. A Gentile could be a ‘God-fearer’, but that didn’t make him a Jew or a full member of the Jewish faith. Now, it seems that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

The passage in Acts indicates an immediate understanding of God’s work. I wonder if it was quite that easy. If you have ever sat through any meeting where there are differences of opinion and challenges to the status quo, you know that much discussion goes on before a new idea is accepted.

Peter’s vision and acceptance of Cornelius’ faith, opened the door for further evangelism to the Gentiles. Acts 11:19 tells us, “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.”

We see that the death of Stephen spread the Gospel across Asia. The door was opened by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to more and more people. There were Jewish communities in most cities of the Roman Empire, but it was the non-Jews who welcomed the Gospel in surprising numbers. “The hand of the Lord was with [those preaching to the Hellenists], and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. (A journey of some 400 miles.) When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21-24)

We first hear of Barnabas in Acts 4:36 as one who sold his property and joined the infant church. His name was Joseph bar Nabas. (Nabas is translated alternately ‘encouragement’ or ‘prophecy’ or ‘consolation’) He was a ‘native of Cyprus’ and a Levite. Barnabas was a logical choice for Peter and the other leaders to send to meet with the new converts because of his familiarity with Greek culture. Perhaps he even knew people in Antioch. Cyprus is just off the coast parallel to Antioch. He is delighted with the faith he finds in Antioch and realizes that this is a fertile field for planting seeds of God’s love. Barnabas decides he needs help in the ministry and “went to Tarsus to look for Saul [and]…brought him to Antioch.” (Acts 11:25-26a)

Remember Barnabas knew Saul. In Acts 9:27 he is the one man in Jerusalem who is not afraid of Saul and believes his conversion. He “took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord…and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.” It would appear that the men were acquaintances if not friends at this time.

Saul and Barnabas are a good team. “For an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.” Being called Christian was a new delineation for the early church. Until now, the believers had been a group of Jewish men and women who preached that the promised Messiah had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and rose from the dead. By taking on the name Christian (follower of the Christos or anointed one) they took on a broader identity that was not tied to the old Hebrew tribal lineage. You could be a Christian even if you were not of Hebrew descent.

The new believers, these new ‘Christians’ acted on their belief and reached out to the home church when there was need because of Agubus’ prophecy “that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)

The believers in the early church had to figure out how God wanted them to act. Were they to share the Gospel with just Jews or with just Gentiles or with both? Peter and Saul ultimately found their ministry took them to separate segments of believers. The church still struggles with the Great Commission “Go…make disciples of all nations.”

Each of us is called to share the Gospel with those we come in contact with. Each of us struggles with sharing the Good News with those we label as ‘different’ or ‘wrong’. Shouldn't we ask ourselves, does God make any distinctions between my worth and the worthiness of the one I look down on or ignore? How can I overcome differences instead of making them worse? It was the Gentiles who first accepted the title of Christian, meaning 'little Christs' or 'Christ bearers'. Who are we keeping from faith by our own narrow definition of God's work and of faith?

Next time we will look at the start of more persecution of the early church.

August 14, 2011

Lens of Labels

For the past couple of months we have been looking at the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives the early church. You can look through the topics of the since June to see some of the posts. First, of course, was the ‘sound of a great rushing wind’ that signified the arrival of the Holy Spirit and transformed humble men and women into brave evangelists.

Peter, an unlearned fisherman, preached the first sermon of the new church and converted thousands. His actions were frowned on by the authorities, but even after experiencing prison and questioning, he maintained his convictions.

The church faced challenges and met them by ordaining the first deacons, among them Stephen, who boldly preached and converted people in Jerusalem. He also faced the Jewish council and was condemned to death by stoning. Then persecution assaulted the believers. This might have spelled the end of a human movement, but God works differently. Due to the persecution, believers left Jerusalem and carried the message of salvation. Philip was one of those who evangelized far and near. He went first to Samaria, then to the eunuch from Ethiopia and then to the coastal towns along the Mediterranean.

Last week we saw how Saul, the young Pharisee from Jerusalem, was changed into a believer while on his way to Damascus. We heard how Ananias, in response to the urging of the Holy Spirit, ministered to Saul, despite his reputation. Transformed and converted, Saul preached the Good News in Damascus and then in other areas. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.” (Acts 9:31)

The Holy Spirit is not a respecter of socio-economic, ethnic, national, or any other man-made boundary as Peter learns in Acts 10. Humans on the other hand, like to attach labels to one another. Too often these labels divide us or make us look scornfully at someone different than we are or with different beliefs. Last week Saul was blinded and "something like scales fell from his eyes" when Ananias visited him. The labels we give each other are a filter or a lens that distorts our view of the face of God in one another. The early church was not immune to the Lens of Labels.

Peter was happy as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Sometimes, he traveled to other Jewish communities like Lydda and Joppa (see Acts 9:32-43). In Joppa, he healed a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas). “It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.” (Acts 9:42-43)

Joppa is on the coast of the Mediterranean, south of Caesarea about 25-30 miles. Unbeknownst to Peter, the Holy Spirit was on the move in Caesarea. “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort…He was a devout man who feared God…One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’ When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.” (Acts 10:1-8) The trip for the slaves and soldier would have been an all day, or all night, trek.

Meanwhile, God prepares Peter with a perplexing vision. “About noon the next day…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” (Acts 10:9-16)

God tells Peter that all things are clean, even animals Jews were forbidden to eat, based on Levitical laws. By extension, all persons are holy and clean, too, even those we might consider 'unclean' or even our enemies. Peter doesn’t understand the symbolism until the emissaries from Cornelius arrive. They “were standing by the gate. [and] called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there…the Spirit said to [Peter], ‘…get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’ So Peter went down to the men and said, ‘I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?’” (Acts 10:17-21)

The trio form Cornelius explained, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” (Acts 10:22-23) Their response, perhaps, made all the pieces click into place in Peter’s mind. Ordinarily the Jewish fisherman would not have considered going to a Gentile home at all, esp. one that housed a Roman army officer. The occupying Roman army was not popular with the Jews and was to avoided if at all possible.

However, perhaps still wondering at his vision, Peter invites them into Simon’s house for the night. In the morning, he and “some of the believers from Joppa” head for Caesarea where “Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.” (Acts 10:24)

The Galilean fisherman and the Roman centurion find themselves face to face, brought together by God who wants to bridge differences and bring all creation to faith. They share their visions and then “Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to preach Jesus Christ and the resurrection ending by saying, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43)

It is then that God affirms Peter’s testimony when “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:44-48)

Notice that the “circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Sometimes it is easy to categorize people by our human descriptions. ‘Gentile’, ‘pagan’, ‘unbeliever’, ‘Protestant’, ‘Catholic’, ‘reformed’, ‘barbarian’, ‘slave’, etc. are only some of the ways Christians have labeled one another through the centuries.

God gave Peter, and us, a new definition “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter realized "God shows no partiality." Perhaps, like Peter, we are called to reach out to those outside our circle, outside our comfort zone. Is there someone you avoid because they are 'different', or don't believe the same way you do? Remember, in God's eyes, they are clean and holy, too. Can you try to see this person through God's eyes, instead of through the lens of labels?

Next week, we'll see how the Gospel begins to spread widely throughout the Gentile world, causing the early believers to reevaluate their beliefs about the 'goyam'.

August 7, 2011

Paul is Converted

Paul of Tarsus is a famous evangelist of the early church. We meet him in Acts, Chapter 9. But wait, we actually met him back at the end of Chapter 7 (on July 24) when those who stoned Stephen ‘laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.’ At the beginning of Chapter 9, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus.” (Acts 9:1-2)

Armed with the authority of the priests and leaders Saul (his Jewish name) heads for Damascus. This is not an easy, overnight trip. Damascus is far to the north in Syria. Saul would have passed the Sea of Galilee and continued north another 40 or so miles to Caesarea Philippi before turning northeast. Damascus was still another 40 miles away. The journey would have been about a week on foot. Fortunately Saul traveled by donkey, but it was still a long trek. Saul was inspired by his hatred for the new sect and his desire to preserve the purity of Judaism.

Something happens though, that changes Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Evangelist. A disciple in Damascus, Ananias, tells what happened on the Street Called Straight (photo from ca 1900).
One night I had a vision. The Lord called me by name. ‘Ananias,’ I heard it clearly. ‘Here I am, Lord’ was my reply. Then my God told me to do something terrifying. ‘Go to the street called Straight, to the house of Judas. Ask to speak to Saul of Tarsus. He is praying and has seen you come and lay hands on him to regain his sight.’

I was afraid and argued with the Lord. ‘Everyone knows that this man is evil. He has killed the saints in Jerusalem and is here to do the same under authority from the chief priests.’

God ignored my complaints. He simply repeated ‘Go. He is a chosen instrument of mine. He will carry my name before the Gentiles, kings, and all Israel. He will suffer much for my name.’

I tossed and turned the rest of the night. In the morning, I combed my beard and hair. If I was going to meet a famous Pharisee, I wanted to look my best. It took courage to kiss my wife and walk down our dirt street to the paved and colonnaded Street called Straight.

I knew Judas slightly from the Fellowship of Believers. He was a Greek who many years ago became interested in the Jewish religion. Now his faith in the Risen Lord was absolute. His home and shop shared the same space behind one of the columns along the street.

“Is there a man here known as Saul of Tarsus?” I asked, briefly wondering why Saul would chose to lodge here instead of in a Jewish home. Judas was known as a person who opened his heart to anyone in need but it was still odd that a rich Pharisee would come to him.

“Indeed there is. Members of his caravan brought him to me because it is known that I take in the ill and crazy. The men said that a few miles out of Damascus, there was a lightning storm. One particularly loud crack of lightning struck near the caravan. The animals were spooked. It was only after they were under control that someone noticed Saul lying on the ground. He appeared to be talking to someone, although no one else saw anyone.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“The same thing he keeps saying since he has been here. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I’ll tell you it’s getting on my nerves. Do you know anything about him?”

“Only that the Lord ordered me to come here and pray for him.”

Judas stood aside, “Enter, then. You will find the man in the atrium. The lightning struck him blind, as well as made him crazed.”

I stood for a minute staring at Saul. Could this young man be the one I had heard such terrible tales about? He was only a little older than my own son. His garments were of rich material and his beard and hair proclaimed him a Pharisee of the highest degree.

“Is someone there?” The young man turned toward me. His eyes stared sightlessly past me.

After another moment, I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road, has sent me to you.”

Eagerly he reached out toward me. I took his hands between mine. “Do you know the Lord Jesus?”

For a moment I was taken aback and almost afraid that this was a trick. If I admitted to being a follower of the Risen One, he would arrest me and drag me off to death.

“So be it, Lord,” I said under my breath and replied to the young man’s question. “Yes, Brother Saul, I know the Lord Jesus. It is he who sent me to you so you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

I was ashamed of my fear when tears appeared in the sightless eyes. “Then I am in your hands.”

Gently I laid my hands on Saul’s eyes. “Lord Jesus, you have chosen this man to proclaim your glory. Give him sight that he may serve you to your glory.”

When I removed my hands, I did not see any change. Then he blinked and tiny flakes started to drop off his eyelashes. A moment later his eyes were clear.

“I can see,” the young man whispered in awe. “And it is not just my eyes that see. My heart sees my God in a new way. Truly I have been blind to all that God has accomplished.”

“He will continue to show you what you will do, my brother,” I affirmed. “Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God?”

“That I do!” His voice rang out and echoed in the atrium.

Judas peered in. “Is everything alright?”

“You are my host. I thank you for your hospitality. Is there water so I can be baptized in the name of Jesus?”

“Yes, there is water,” my friend replied slowly after looking at me with astonishment.

“It is not a trick.” The young Pharisee read his mind. “I have been changed by the same Lord you worship.”

A short time later, Saul shook the water off his hair and grinned. “It is a new beginning, isn’t it?”

“It will not be easy to convince the other Believers,” I warned him.

Supremely confident, the young man shrugged. “I plan to proclaim Jesus to the synagogues. Everyone needs to know about this new birth, this new beginning, this new life!”

Over the next several days, Saul rather made a nuisance of himself. He went to each synagogue in Damascus and insisted “Jesus is the Son of God. It is a new beginning for Jews and for Gentiles.”

“Isn’t this the man who imprisoned and killed those who follow the Christ?” Many people asked me.

“It is,” I shrugged. “He has changed.”

That wasn’t enough for some of the local leaders. I learned of a plot to kill Saul and so we smuggled him out of the city one night by lowering him over the wall in a basket. We heard he went to Jerusalem to preach to the Jews and disciples there. I wish him well.

Ananias was called by God to do something frightening, but he trusted and obeyed. How often do we hesitate to do something difficult because we aren’t sure of the outcome?

Recently I was reminded of the metaphor of a flashlight in the darkness. Faith is like following a dark path with only a flashlight. It doesn’t help me see everything, but it lights enough so I can take a couple of steps, then a couple more. No matter how big the flashlight, it will never completely light up the world. In the same way, we don’t have to have all the answers in order to step out in ministry.

Paul first preached to the Jews in Damascus. When he returned to Jerusalem, “Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord.” (Acts 9:27) Imagine the consternation in the community of Jerusalem when Saul came back. The Jewish leaders were angry with him and the disciples feared him. That didn’t stop Saul, though. He kept taking one step at a time until his journeys covered much of the Roman empire with the Good News.

Take out your Faith Flashlight and shine it on the path you are on. What is the next step?

Next week, we see Peter, once a Jewish fisherman, reaching out of his comfort zone to a Roman.