September 25, 2011

Conflict resolution

Since June we’ve been looking at life in the early church as told in the Book of Acts. There has been persecution and imprisonment, even death of some of the apostles (Stephen and James). Paul, former persecutor of the church, has become a valiant evangelist and traveled all over Asia Minor with the Good News. Many Gentiles have been converted by his witness and most of the church rejoices. However, “certain individuals came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1)

This demand creates dissension in the church. “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.” The men travel to Jerusalem where they are welcomed and “all that God had done with them.” Then “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:4-5) These believers were upholding the ages-old Jewish tradition of circumcision as a sign of being a member of the saved. Wisely Peter and the other leaders met together.

Eventually Peter says, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11)

After Paul and Barnabas tell of the conversion of many Gentiles, James offers his view. “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

The leaders write a letter that is delivered to the church in Antioch by Paul and Barnabas with representatives from the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas. “When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them.” (Acts 15:30-35)

Soon Paul and Barnabas decide to “visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” (Acts 15:36) However, there is a disagreement between the partners over John Mark. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." (Acts 39-41)

We often think that the early church was always in agreement. This chapter shows that there was disagreement among the leadership and even the busiest evangelists. Through it all the Gospel was preached and the church grew. I recently learned that every September 21 is the International Day of Peace established by the United Nations in 1981. As citizens of the Kingdom of God and of the world, we should work for peace rather than dissension. Seeking to get along with one another at work and home may not seem to have much global impact, but each act of peace is an antidote to violence and anger.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul counsels "Live in far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all." This is part of his chapter long appeal to the church at Rome to live as One Body. (Romans 12)

We can easily get distracted by the superficial disagreements between people in our churches. Someone wants to try doing something a different way and we become fearful and angry like the party of the Pharisees at the Jerusalem council. “That’s not the way it’s done,” we may fume. However, like Peter and James, we can also look at the change as a place and way God is acting.

Have you ever felt threatened when someone started a new ministry or changed the way an existing ministry is done? Did you refuse to participate or did you look for the presence of God in the change?

God is ever changing. I recently read a quote by Choan-seng Song. (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion and acting minister at the Formosan United Methodist Church in San Leandro, California) He said, “God moves in all directions: God moves forward, no doubt, but also sideways and even backwards. Perhaps God zigzags too … God goes anywhere a Redeeming Presence is called for. “ -. Perhaps we need to be willing, like the early church, to go in the direction God is going, even if it appears to be backward or in a zigzag route.

Next week, we’ll see what happened to Paul on his further journeys. When we join God's plan, your lives will not be dull.  

September 18, 2011

Facing Challenges

Last week we saw how Paul and Barnabas were ‘set aside’ and anointed for their task of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. These are Jewish men, stepping outside their comfort zone by even talking to non-Jews. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they continue on their journey when driven out of Pisidian Antioch. They arrive in Iconium, not quite 100 miles southeast of Antioch, in south central Galatia (now Turkey).

In Acts 14 we hear “Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers.” Just as in other places, this angered the traditional Jewish population, seeking to uphold their ancestral traditions, so they “stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” However, this doesn’t deter Paul or Barnabas. Instead, “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.” (Acts 14:1-7)

Only when an “an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to maltreat them and to stone them” did they leave and travel to Lystra (just a few miles south of Iconium) and on to Derbe (50 or so miles further on) where “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

In Lystra, the message of the Gospel is misunderstood. When Paul heals a crippled man, (seen in this art from the 15th century by Karl Dujardin) the people decide, “‘the gods have come down to us in human form!’” (Acts 14:8-12) They call Paul, Hermes and Barnabas, Zeus and prepare to offer sacrifice. This must have been abhorrent to the two disciples. “They tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.’ Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” (Acts 14:15-18)

For devout Jews, the idea of being hailed as gods, was no doubt deeply disturbing. In tearing their clothing, Paul and Barnabas expressed their distaste for the blasphemous idea. Tearing the clothing is a symbol of grief and a reaction to blasphemy. In Matthew 26:65, the “high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.’” In 2 Chronicles, “When the king [Josiah] heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes.” Job tears his clothing in grief upon hearing that his children have all died (Job 1:20)

The troublemakers from Antioch and Iconium arrive and incite the crowd who “stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” Paul is not dead. “The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” (Acts 14:19-20)

In Derbe they make many disciples, and then retrace their steps through Lystra back to Antioch. The map at left shows the many miles traveled on this first missionary journey. On the way, they encourage the new converts telling them, “‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” (Acts 14:22-23)

On their way back to Antioch of Syria, they preach in Perga and Attalia on the coast. “From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:25-27)

I am always amazed at Paul’s resilience and persistence. It is easy to give up when the “going gets tough.” Certainly, Paul faced much resistance to the message of the Gospel. In several of his epistles, he enumerates beatings, stoning, imprisonment, and other harsh punishments. However, the Holy Spirit and the Risen Lord gave him the courage to continue to preach the Gospel.

Throughout history men and women of faith have persevered in the face of resistance and persecution. We should give thanks for these saints of the church who gave us a legacy of faith and courage for our own lives.

What challenges are you facing in proclaiming your faith today? Look to Paul and others throughout the centuries who stood firm preaching Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Their witness is written in the Bible and in church history for our encouragement. You and I can live as Christian men and women, standing on their shoulders.

Next week we will look at the earliest church council and see that differences of opinion, even within the faith community, are nothing new.

September 11, 2011

Facing Opposition

Last month, we left Saul in Antioch preaching the Gospel and being well received by the people. He and Barnabas probably thought they had a nice long term position there. The Holy Spirit had other plans. “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (Acts 13:2) Saul and Barnabas with the other leaders in Antioch (Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen) heard the call because they were spending time with God by ‘worshipping and fasting’.

Barnabas and Saul head to Seleucia, a city on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. There they sail across the 50 mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus. The 3 men (‘John was with them) started their mission in Salamis on the south eastern side of the island where “they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” (Acts 13:5) Then the trio of apostles starts to tour the island. At the opposite end of Cyprus is the city of Paphos. Here they encounter the proconsul of the island, Sergius Paulus, who “wanted to hear the word of God” and a “Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus (son of Jesus/Joshua) who was also known as Elymas (meaning wizard). Sergius Paulus in interested, but Elymas “opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”

Can’t you just imagine the scene-Saul, never known for his patience, confronts the magician saying, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” (Acts 13:9-11). It is very dramatic and “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.” Meanwhile the sorcerer, “went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand.” This painting by Raphael shows the moment of Elymas’ blindness while the proconsul looks on in amazement.

Soon the apostles “set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia” (on the southern coast of Turkey, a couple hundred miles west of Seleucia). From here they head inland about 100 miles to Antioch of Pisidia. They go to the synagogue where the “officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.’ So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak.” (Acts 13:13-16)

His training as a Pharisee helps Saul/Paul when he preaches to the Jewish community. Paul recites the salvation history of the Jews starting with the Exodus and leading up to King David. Cleverly he links David to Jesus, Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised…the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him…But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus…Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:23-39) Paul brings his sermon full circle by telling the congregation that they cannot be redeemed by the Law of Moses.

Paul’s recitation intrigued the people and they “urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath…[meanwhile] many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

The warm welcome turns sour within a week, though. “The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles’…When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” (Acts 13:44-48)

After preaching mainly to the Jewish population, Paul now accepts his call to be missionary to the Gentiles. Rather than being discouraged when “the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region,” the apostles “went to Iconium” (about 100 miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch). We hear the “the word of God spread through the region.” (Acts 13:49-52)

Saul/Paul and Barnabas set out on this journey because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit for the task. When we need direction, we would do well to gather friends around us to pray, and even fast, so that the Holy Spirit can speak. Paul and Barnabas listened to the Lord and didn’t become discouraged when it seemed they reached a dead end, they simply moved on, leaving behind seed to grow and flourish. The opposition of their native faith community (the Jews) did not deter them, either. Because they walked in the power of the Holy Spirit, they simply preached to those who were receptive and moved on when necessary.

As we will see over the next few weeks, this becomes a cycle. In each place that Paul goes and preaches, he finds opposition. Never discouraged, he moves on to the next town and the next.

When you (and I) think we have a calling from God, do we gather friends around to pray for discernment-or do we, more often, just jump in? Jesus told his disciples “where 2 or 3 are gathered together, I am in the midst.” (Matthew 18:20) We are meant to have a community of supporters.

When we face opposition to our message, whether from family, faith community, friends, or strangers, do we turn to Jesus and keep going or do we give up? Over and over in the Epistles we are reminded that “even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." (Romans 15:3) and “though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

Are we willing to plant the seed (of faith) and then move on to let it germinate and grow, or do we feel like we have to hover over the plant until our attention stifles it? Paul learned throughout his travels that his job was to plant. In I Corinthians 3:6 he says “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

Next week we will continue with Paul on his journeys around Asia Minor and see how he met and defeated those who were against his mission to the Gentiles.

On this Tenth Anniversary of 9/11, let us pray for the families who lost loved ones that day and for the healing of our nation and for peace in the world.
These sections of some of the Trade Center beams were incorporated into a bell tower at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque. Thousands of miles from NYC, they keep silent vigil to remind us of the events of that day. Our actions each day, living into our individual callings, can help with the healing and peace needed today between people and nations.

September 4, 2011

Seed Planting

It's Labor Day weekend. The unofficial end of summer is here, even if the weather is still hot and the calendar says that Autumn doesn’t start until September 21. Some schools have been back in session for a few weeks, others will begin soon. County and state fairs are in full swing showing the work of farmers and crafty folks. It’s a time to think about harvests. Farmer’s markets are full of delicious produce and even groceries have some of the fresh foods. Around here, the favorite crop is green chili and the air is full of the aroma of roasting peppers.

Fall is harvest time for farmers. For schools and churches, it is the time of year when things start up again. It’s another ‘new year’. This new year offers a chance to consider the seeds we plant and harvest as faithful people of God.

In Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Jesus compares faithful stewardship of our gifts to a sower who went to plant seed. Rather than making neat furrows like modern farmers, broadcast sowing was the norm of the day. Like the statue in Kew Gardens (above) portrays, the farmer took handfuls of seed and flung them across the field as he walked along. “Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

The musical, Godspell from the 1970’s, has a song (All Good Things) that is an adaptation of the Parable of the Sower. We are reminded that no matter what we propose to do-in life, ministry, in our sowing and planting that it is ‘God who gives the increase.’ (I Corinthians 3:7) “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land.. But it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand.. He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain... The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain...”

Last spring our grandson helped plant a garden in our backyard. Every time he visits, he goes to check the plants. He was very proprietary about the produce, too. When Grandpa picked the first tomatoes without his presence and permission, it caused quite a fuss! For a 4-year old he has stayed quite focused on ‘his’ garden. Our grandson was pretty sure that he had to ensure the plants grew well. Many of us do the same thing in our ministries. We shoulder all the responsibility for the results and get disappointed and discouraged when the results don’t measure up to our standards.

God gives the increase, but we have to nurture our ministries, like our grandson did the garden. It is easy to get distracted from our good plans and abandon our projects. Jesus tells his disciples “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (Matthew 13:19-22)

Fall is a good time to evaluate how our ministry is going. We all want to be the fertile soil that grows abundantly. Labor Day celebrates the workers of the fields and factories and companies of America. Most workers want to take Henry David Thoreau’s words as their motto. “Be not simply good - be good for something.” As Christians, we have a larger field and we plant seeds for eternity. All we do as ministry, be it simply a smile or as complex as heading up a mission trip, is ‘good for something.’ Godspell’s music states that God only needs one response: “No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts but that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts!"

The beginning of the ‘program’ year also offers new opportunities to try out some new prayer routine or Bible study. Maybe we’ve always wanted to try out working in Sunday School or some other ministry at our church or volunteer at a school or shelter. Pray about it and then go ahead and plant seed in that ministry remembering “All good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above.. Then thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..I really wanna thank you Lord! All good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above.. Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love.”

What kind of seed do you sow? What kind of seed are you growing? Does your garden need some nurturing?

Next week we'll be back to looking at Acts as Saul begins his many missionary journeys.