Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Acts 15: the Council of Jerusalem

For the second time in the young history of the Church, persecution is followed by internal conflict. (The corruption of Ananias and Sapphira was exposed shortly after Peter and John were threatened by the Sanhedrin). The Council of Jerusalem contains much effective conflict resolution. Had I consistently practiced these principles as a father and husband, there would have been less strife at home, I think.

The conflict begins when Judaizers demand that Gentile believers be circumcized. They dropped the “S-bomb”: “ya gotta do this if ya wanna be Saved.” No doubt that also used that pointless old chestnut, "it's always been done this way." There is no modern day equivalent to forcing new believers to undergo painful mutilation, but the “real Christians bow their heads, don’t move their feet, don’t listen to rock music, drink, smoke, chew or go with girls who do” dictum carries the same spirit of condemnation and bondage. Paul and Peter both counter that the grace of the cross gives freedom.

How often have I communicated to a loved one, “do such and such or I will disapprove and judge you?” To follow Christ by speaking truth in love requires patience, discernment and humility. I might actually do as the assembly did in verse 12: become silent and listen. As one among them wrote years later, “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

The Council’s word to the Gentiles is full of understanding and freedom, both in rejection of mutilation and in the words “it seems good to us.” This issue is not a war banner they drive into a hilltop, demanding all good soldiers to rally ‘round. Within a generation or two Roman, Gentile Christianity had given up most Jewish traditions and ritual practices. They do not seem to have been missed.

And sometimes, we just agree to disagree. Paul and Barnabas split over whether to take John Mark on the next trip, thus producing missions mitosis: two teams out of one. All four principals eventually reconciled and are celebrated in scripture. By one estimate there are 2600 separate Christian churches. One suspects that although many splits were born of the spirit of the Judaizers, others are Spirit-birthed. The history of the development of the Christian church, on earth as it is in heaven, will be a fascinating heavenly seminar. (“In conclusion, that is why the Holy Spirit sent my brother Charles and I to Georgia.”)

What follows is a Wikipedia quick history of the first seven all-church councils of the Christian church. They are generally regarded by church historians from most major Christian groups as positive landmarks.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Acts 14: War of Liberation

This morning at Jericho Congregational Church we enjoyed a blessed time of celebration. Joyous praise. Baptisms. Receiving of new members. Even a potluck! The Christian life is either liberation and celebration. Christians co-labor with God to liberate all people from sin’s curse, and celebrate this “work in progress” in its generalities and particulars, made possible by the Finished Work of the Cross.

The final leg of Paul’s first missionary journey is close-quarters, no-holds-barred liberation warfare, one battle after another. The battlegrounds are a string of cities in modern-day Turkey and the Balkans. Which just goes to show that vicious religious strife is nothing new to that part of the world. The combatants are Paul and Barnabas and supporters, opposed by an axis of unbelieving Jews (driving the agenda), easily misled Gentiles and local leaders. The Jews consider Paul a traitor, usually the most hated person in any conflict. Think Quisling and Benedict Arnold.

Both sides want the hearts and minds of the Gentiles. Both try persuasion. But when words fail – and they do – Paul and Barnabas a) do signs and wonders and/or b) leave town, sometimes conscious and willingly, sometimes not. The other side employs thugs with stones. Paul is stoned and left for dead outside the city but revives – most likely miraculously – and continues to preach in the next town.

So what did it look like when “God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (v.27)? Besides a lot of bruises:
1.       Gentiles believe in “great numbers”
2.       A lame man is healed
3.       Gentiles hear a summary of how God sees them (“Once he let you alone, being content to testify through provision, now he calls you to repentance and eternal life,” Vs. 15-17)
4.       Elders are appointed for churches
5.       Back in Antioch, worried believers are encouraged to hear from Paul on his return that a) God has protected his sent-out ones, and b) that “we must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” A hard but useful teaching for the saints of Rome who must endure the persecutions yet to come.

As the wolves treated the shepherd, they will treat the sheep. But take heart, Jesus has overcome the world, and is liberating it every day, through his friends.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Acts 13: Elymas the Sorcerer, meet Paul

With Acts 13 Luke pivots away from Peter and the Jerusalem Church and spends most of the rest of the book describing Paul's ministry to the Gentiles. The central theme of the book after all is "Christ, the Light of the Gentiles."

At the Spirit's command the brothers set apart Saul and Barnabas for this ministry and send them along. (From here on Luke calls Saul "Paul", which means "small".) A little while later Paul is addressing Sergius Paulus, proconsul of the town of Paphos on the island of Cyprus. A "court sorcerer" with a Greek name of Elymas and Jewish name of Bar-Jesus opposes Paul and the gospel. Paul prophesies firmly against him and he is struck blind. How interesting that Elymas is afflicted with the affliction with which Paul himself was afflicted. Perhaps this is the Spirit's way of saying "thinking themselves enlightened, they became blind." Or perhaps it holds out a hope of deliverance; the very man speaking the prophecy was once struck blind himself, but by grace he "saw his way clear" to repent and believe and serve. His sight was restored, in more ways than one.

Whatever. Paul's words and power amaze Sergius Paulus, and another Roman joins the Eternal Kingdom. Of Elymas Luke says nothing more.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Acts 12: Man plans, God laughs

King Herod of Judea, the son of the tetrarch Jesus called “that fox,” placates a core constituency (Pharisees) by killing the Apostle John. A seasoned power politician like his father and grandfather, he is continuing the family tradition of murdering friends of Jesus named John. Delighted at the audience’s happy response, Herod then imprisons Peter. Will he be next? Probably, if Herod gets his way. But as the Yiddish proverb says, “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht” – "Man plans, God laughs.

In response to a praying church, an angel of the Lord appears to sleeping Peter. He has to tell Peter three times: get up, get dressed, get moving. He even whacks him on the side, before Peter realizes once and for all that he is not dreaming. You can almost hear him say:

“I don’t beLIEVE it!”

Minutes later Peter has escaped and is knocking on the door of John Mark’s house, where many disciples are staying. Rhoda the servant opens the door. She alone “gets it” right off. In fact she gets it so quickly that she leaves Peter standing outside, while she runs inside to tell the disciples, who respond:

“I don’t beLIEVE it!”

They are so sure their prayers have not been answered that they think she has seen a ghost. Enfleshed Peter appears. They believe. One guy who never does actually “get it” is Herod, who cross-examines (a nice word for torture no doubt) the guards, hears their admittedly far-fetched explanations, and concludes:

I don’t beLIEVE it!”

(In my mind’s ear I hear him sounding like Wallace Shawn’s character in “The Princess Bride”: “Incontheevable!”) True to form he executes the guards. A little while later Herod is back in Caesarea, basking in comfortable role as pork dispenser. It is a odd thing about politicians who control the public purse strings: their audiences applaud every statement and laugh at every joke. Another Yiddish proverb says, “When you have money in your pocket, you are funny and you are handsome and you sing good, too.” The crowd listening to Herod relies on him for their food (vs. 20). They know their part in this play: after he speaks, they shout as if on cue, “this is the voice of a god, not of a man!” But one unseen Listener says to Himself,

“I don’t beLIEVE it!”

So for the second time in this chapter an Angel of the Lord strikes someone, and Herod’s innards become lunch for hungry worms. So pass all tyrants, on this side of the grave or the other. But the Word of the Lord endures forever, and so does His Kingdom, and so do His martyred servants. Believe it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Acts 11: When criticized......

Doing miracles and getting tabbed by Jesus as the new Chief Shepherd doesn't exempt Peter from criticism. The old Peter would have blustered or denied. What about Spirit-filled Peter?

So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”  4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story..... 5

When criticized, Peter doesn't get defensive. He doesn't point fingers. He hides nothing, because he has nothing to hide. He's been called to witness (Acts 1) and that's what he does.

He wins over the traditionalists: "When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Sometimes the shortest path between suspicion and acceptance is explanation. Especially when there is a willingness to listen.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Acts 10: the Spirit asks the unthinkable

In the fourth decade of first century Judea, Jews and Romans agree on one thing: they hate each other. To the Jew, the Roman is an oppressive, violent, greedy, unclean, idolatrous dog. To the Roman, a Jew is an arrogant, ungrateful, rebellious zealot. Armies of occupation and the subjects they oversee rarely hold hands around the campfire singing Kum-Bay-Yah, and this time and place is no exception.  

Then the Spirit of God declares war on bigotry, tribalism and race-hatred. A Kingdom divided cannot stand, much less advance against the world, the flesh and the devil. Rather than oxcarting Jewish children to Roman schools (forced Hellenization has been tried with disastrous results), the Spirit responds to godly prayers from both “sides” (Cornelius the Roman, Peter the Jew). He tells the Roman warrior and conqueror to do the unthinkable: risk terrible loss of status by humbly inviting a Jew to enter his home. Peter’s task is even more unthinkable: accept. Upon meeting they confess their brotherhood.

It is the Anti-Sign of Jonah. God tells the godly to reach across cultures in brotherly love…… and they do not flee in the opposite direction! From beginning to end, this is a miracle. Like the parting of the Red Sea, it is just a start and there will be backsliding. But the Church has taken a giant step forward to realizing Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

I only began to notice that I was unconsciously ignoring African-American passersby, and they doing the same to me, when we started pushing Joe in a baby stroller. Suddenly, on the sidewalks and in the grocery store aisles of Chittenden County, we were all proud happy parents who loved our kids. Eye contact. Smiles. Names and phone numbers exchanged. Doors of communication swung open that are still open today. Then as now, all it took was the right little baby coming into the world. The wolf will live with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Acts 9: Three healings

Acts 9 begins with the Jerusalem pogrom spreading 150 miles away to Damascus. It ends with the resurrection of godly woman. In the middle, the Chief Persecutor becomes the Chief Proselytizer. The Kingdom of God is advancing!

Acts 9 recounts three healings, each done explicitly to glorify God. The first healing is of the Drill Instructor variety. When Marine boots arrive at Parris Island, their previous lives are stripped away from them by not-so-tender specialists highly skilled at developing hard-edged warriors for freedom’s army. Enroute to Damascus to stop the dispersed seeds of his pogrom from reaching this vital crossroads of trade caravans, Saul of Tarsus is literally knocked off his high horse. Nothing flowery from Jesus: “Get up. Go. Wait to be told what you must do.” Sounds like boot camp to me! Furthermore Blinded and led by the hand to Damascus, he has time to think about the hard truths of his enlightenment. He knows now he has been more Haman than Mordecai, more Ahab than Elijah. As the scales fall from his eyes (hence the colloquial expression), this “chief of sinners” is healed in both body and soul. Abraham Lincoln said, "I destroy my enemies by making them my friends." That is what is done here by the Greatest Emancipator.

A lifelong civilian, I honor the sacrifice and faith demonstrated by godly men and women in the military. Rep. Vicky Strong, a pastor’s wife in the Northeast Kingdom, has established a website on behalf of her son, Jesse, whose body died in iraq in 2005 but who is alive in Christ today.

Beginning in verse 32 and for the next several chapters, Luke re-focuses on Peter. The Holy Spirit will orchestrate a momentous work of Kingdom unity in chapter 10, but first He performs two more healings: Aeneas, the paralytic, and Tabitha/Dorcas (Aramaic and Greek for “gazelle”) the dead woman. Visiting the saints of Sharon and Lydda, Peter says to a man laying on the ground for eight years, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.” (Or as the KJV succinctly states in words quoted by mothers everywhere, “Arise, and make thy bed.”) When Aeneas rose, “all those who lived in Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord,” the Rose of Sharon.

Reading about restored Gazelle, I see the mourners milling around outside the house where she lies. They are wearing clothing that she made for them, which they point out to the apostles. I wonder, will I leave behind such clothing – in my case words and deeds that bless the needy in body and spirit now and into eternity?

My friend Jon Hughes kept a photo of an atypical Catholic saint in his office at Bishop John A. Marshall School. I can never remember his name, perhaps Deacon Pete Gummere of St. Johnsbury will provide this information for me. Anyway - this fellow was a wealthy young, early 20th century Italian who loved to rock climb and ski with his pals. The photo shows a handsome young man laughing and holding a stogie in one hand while his other is draped around his buddy’s shoulder. But there was more to him than worldly bonhomie. As they would ski through the woods, if they came across a chapel he would say to his fellows, “let’s go in and worship.” And he gave so freely to the poor that when he died, large crowds of people who would never notice the death of a rich man attended the funeral as a sign of love and respect and gratitude for one who cared for them, and the One who cares for all of the poor in body and spirit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Acts 8: Like blowing on a dandelion

The day Stephen dies, "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem." As a result:

1. "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" v. 4. The great preacher/scholar Tertullian of Carthage wrote in AD 197, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Persecution usually scatters saints, who then sprout and grow where they're planted. It's like getting rid of a white, puffy dandelion by blowing on it. 

2. for the first time in recorded history, an important African hears and receives the gospel. One of those scattered seeds is Philip the deacon. Remember, the guy driving the poo wagon (figuratively speaking), deciding whether Greek or Jewish widows were entitled to food distributions? God uses that cross-cultural servant mentality to good use, sending him to (ewwww.....) the Samaritans. Healing, deliverance, the Spirit of God.....it's great! Then God uses that better-developed cross-cultural servant mentality to have Philip trot like a slave alongside a chariot driven by a Gentile eunuch. I can't name a single Pharisee who would have condescended to do such a thing. But you can't argue with the results of all this humility: the first recorded successful missionary outreach to an African! There are African churches whose histories are lost in antiquity: is it possible that Philip's spiritual descendents are worshipping today in Ethiopia or neighboring countries? When Black Muslims call Christianity "the white man's religion," African-American Christians point to this story. With perfect truth they replay that when the ancestors of today's white people were still worshipping false gods, Africans were worshipping Christ. In the historic Christian church, white Europeans are newcomers.

Note: the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. They had run once. Peter, from a servant girl. John, naked into the night. This time, as good shepherds they allowed their flock to go, but they themselves stayed in Jerusalem, faithful. Just like Jesus.

3. And oh yeah, I almost forgot..... some guy named Saul led the Jerusalem pogrom. I wonder whatever happened to him? I think I heard somewhere that as a result of his role, he had a change of heart......maybe Luke will discuss that later in the book, if it's important.

So, to sum up: the Pharisees win the pogrom but lose countless Jews elsewhere to the new faith they tried to crush; the first missionary to Africa wins his first convert; and the stage is set for the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Maybe they oughta try something else.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Acts 7: in the Stoning Pit

The blog post on Acts 5 begins, “No more would God’s people stone the ungodly.” But one cannot say the reverse, “no more would the ungodly stone God’s people.” Jesus assured his beloved friends they would suffer persecution, even unto death. 

The high priest and other priests do not heed Gamaliel's “let God sort it out” counsel. Stephen's lengthy, pointed, the-truth-hurts testimony provokes them to fury and gnashing of teeth (something the unrepentant among them will experience much more of, see Matthew 8:12). Convinced they are doing God a favor, they rush Stephen and drag him outside the city, as required by Jewish law (chapter six of the Talmud book, Sanhedrin).

In my mind’s eye I see Stephen standing in a deep hole much like the stoning pits still in use in parts of the Moslem world today. There is no escape. He looks up and sees a ring of murderers hurling stones at him. He knows that barring divine intervention, pain and death are imminent. But high above the crowd he sees Heaven open. He sees his Lord and Savior standing at God’s right hand. His eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith. Not even trying to protect his face, his hands reach skyward. He says “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” And then struck by stones or the need to pray or both he falls to his knees and cries out to the One who just days earlier prayed likewise, “do not hold this sin against them.” Then he dies.

If the Lord tarries, I will one day stand in death's pit, with no hope for escape save divine intervention. My killer will be cancer, or pneumonia, a car accident, or some other agent of Death. Dear Lord, may my eyes of faith see past my pain and its cause and behold the object of Stephen’s love. May I pray  “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” May I forgive those who have offended me and pray for their rescue. Death, where is thy victory? It has been swallowed up in life. Mercy triumphs over judgment, on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Stephen and Philip drive the poo wagon

In Exodus 18, Moses takes his father-in-law Jethro's advice and appoints officials and judges to share his heavy administrative and judicial workload. Likewise in Acts 6, the overworked Twelve ask “all of the disciples” to “choose seven men from among you” to oversee the daily distribution of food.

This strikingly democratic delegation of work and authority produces two outcomes:

1)      It addresses a serious internal "growing pain" in the Jerusalem church. The “flatlanders” (Greek Jews) think their widows receive less food than the widows of the “locals” (Hebrew Jews). The apostles’ decisive action prevents the carpenter ants of greed, tribalism, bigotry, and fear from destroying the church from within. The work was neither glamorous nor popular. “I’m sorry, Miriam, but Philomena over here hasn’t eaten in two days….what’s that? No, I’m not saying that you look like you eat too much….yes, I know it was your ancestors and not hers who ate manna in the wilderness….”

2)      It prepares future leaders. Pastor Al Lamos of the Lamoille Valley Church of the Nazarene stated this morning, “ministry is messy.” He then recounted how this week he had volunteered to drive the manure truck (“the poo wagon”) for a church member and farmer whose fields were flooded. To Jesus, leadership = work no-one else wants to do. One new servant, Stephen, was called to burn in the Spirit hot, bright and briefly. Another, Philip, spent many years in humble, supernatural service, while raising godly, serving children. The impact of their ministries has been traced and admired by church historians, but will only be fully known when they receive their victors’ crowns in heaven. More about Stephen tomorrow, and more about Philip as his story unfolds through the Book of Acts. But both of them got their start by saying “yes” to driving the poo wagon, a fact I will try to remember the next time I am offered some stinky, thankless task.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Acts 5: Ananias, Sapphira, and Gamaliel

No more will God’s people stone the ungodly.

In the Old Testament, the Law called for the people to stone their fellow Israelites found guilty of murder, idolatry, and other capital crimes. The lesson I draw from the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is that in the Kingdom, capital punishment flows only from the hand of God. God’s people must never pick up stones of judgement again.

Sapphira – the “enabler” half of this sinful couple – seems as guilty as Ananias, who actually “did the deed”. Couples are one flesh. Sometimes the flesh is corrupted. I am reminded of an elderly Vermont couple that has spent their lives laboring on behalf of abortion and euthanasia. They love each other and walk hand in hand to and from the legislative hearings at which they push for laws that would result in the unnecessary deaths of the very young and the very old. They are united in their anger at activist Christians. Should grace break through to one or the other, I hope he or she will be willing to choose the Kingdom over corrupted oneness.

Ananias and Sapphira pretended to holiness while loving money. In fact, it is the sin of the Pharisees, and Spirit of God is jealous, jealous, jealous over His bride and will not share her with that wicked spirit.

And speaking of those Pharisees – not all of them were ungodly! Witness Gamaliel, one of the great teachers of the Hebrew faith. His “leave them alone and let God sort it out” is at odds with the practioners of the Stamp Them Out School of Religious Discipline, but is more in line with the stone-free Kingdom and, practically speaking, with the new reality that Israel is no longer a free theocracy, but a people subjected by its own idolatry to pagan rule. It also reminds me of advice an aged John Wesley gave to a young William Wilberforce: if God is directing your work to end slavery in the British empire, never give up, because if God wills it, you cannot fail.

On the subject of Gamaliel, Wikipedia agrees with Luke: he “was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the mid 1st century CE. He was the grandson of the great Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder, and died twenty years before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE).” Jewish literature has him instructing the king and queen, probably Herod Agrippa and his wife Berenice. Hillel, by the way, was the sage who was asked to explain the Law of God while balancing on one foot. He answered, “do no harm to your neighbor. All else is explanation.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Acts 3: the Wonder of Listening (plus a reader comment)

Thirty-five years ago, as my youth pastor, Dick Lawson showed me what a Christian man looked like. Two months ago, as a man who many years ago lost his first wife in a traffic accident, he showed me what "godly grief" looks like. He is now a missions executive with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. This morning he continued his seemingly lifelong ministry of "schooling" me with the following perceptive comment about yesterday's blog post:

"‘We’ don’t see miracles as in Act 2. Define ‘we.’ When ‘sophisticated’ Westerners, Christians or not, see a miracle we rationalize it away, look for natural reasons—as per the book Christian Atheists—confessing to believe but interpreting life as an atheist. If ‘we’ are in the developing world, a world that expects supernatural interactions—be they positive or negative—miracles are embraced. Many within a Muslim context are coming to a saving faith in Christ through dreams and visions which are acceptable vehicles to transmit truth. The hand of the Lord is still active in the land of the living for those alive enough to notice."

The signs and wonders continue in Acts 3. Peter says to a lame beggar, "silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I you." Peter has the gift of healing and soon the man is "walking and leaping and praising God," as the old Sunday School song goes. I dwell on those words, "such as I have give I you." I have the ability to pray. I have the ability to bless in Jesus' name. And I can listen. I can, if I choose, stand in front of someone and make eye contact and keep my mouth shut and concentrate on what someone else is saying. I know this because I have, on occasion, successfully done it. I have entered in the Spiritual Discipline of Active Listening.

I remember being very angry and "culture shocky" when I got out of jail (for abortion rescuing) in the summer of 1989. I am not blaming anyone for "making me" feel that way, but I remember that exactly one person, of all my friends and acquintances, took the time to really listen to what I was thinking and feeling. Strangely enough it was a multi-millionaire construction company owner with whom I served on a local non-profit board. This guy's life was busier than mine by far but he took the time to listen to the person in front of him. I wish I could say that since then I have honored that sacrifice by doing likewise. Maybe a good way for me to wash someone else's feet is with my ears. Healing may not flow from my fingers; but I can listen. Will salvation and revival result? I dunno. But at least "they will know we are Christians by our love." And maybe God will honor loving ears with healing hands and an apt word. "He who has been faithful in little...."

And speaking of faithful - there is Peter, still a leader but by grace no longer a bragging coward. Giving glory to God for the healing, he fearlessly tells the onlookers they have disobeyed God by killing his annointed, but may still receive mercy by the very death they cheered. On this rock the church is built. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Acts 2: Why don't we still have miracles like this?

Tongues of flame, the Spirit roaring and rushing like the wind, people speaking foreign human tongues, signs and wonders:

Why aren't these things still part of our daily life, or even episodic?

The Cynic says they never happened and never will and the only immortality I will ever experience will be the natural recycling of my remains.

The Modern Missions Leader says we don't need tongues because we have bible translators, we don't need healings because we have missions doctors, and we don't need signs and wonders because we have God's word, church histories and teachings, and missionary strategies.

I say God has performed signs and wonders episodically during the life of the church and does so today. I see Acts 2 as a "Big Bang" of the creation of God's church. All of the elements of the kingdom burst forth when God spoke. Since then, worldliness and a "life is a marathon, not a sprint" attitude towards revival and the kingdom have diminished our own appetites for them. And as for God, he prizes above all faith born of the Spirit. 

For the bride of Christ, at least, some of the wedding night sizzle has gone after all these years of marriage. As Jim Morrison sang, "C'mon baby light my fire!" May our temples be once again pure and fit for Shekinah.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day: Acts 1

Today is Mother's Day. My family will celebrate my wonderful mother Janet Page and remember my kids' wonderful mother Diane Page; or, as she often liked to call herself with a laugh, "the other Mrs. Guy Page." We are also celebrating Joe's 18th birthday (May 6), and the party at my mom's house today will do double duty as his FOURTH birthday party celebration. The cake my sister Sarah made him Friday was decorated with emblems of adulthood: a credit card, a toy soldier, a pack of candy cigarettes, even the Playboy bunny logo (gee thanks, Sarah!).

And speaking of Mothers: two godly moms who read this blog referenced the same scripture after reading the post about the death of OBL. Ezekiel 33:11 says, "As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their wicked ways and live."

So on a day of departures and new beginnings and visions for the future, I ponder Acts 1. Jesus the Messiah, described in Isaiah 53 as the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, has already told his disciples that they will be sad at his leaving but that their sorrow will turn to joy, eventually. And now it is time for Jesus to leave them for once and for all, rising into the clouds, until that great gettin' up mornin' when he returns in the same way.

[Long paranthetical defense of the Ascension: if this were Psalms or other poetic scripture, I might say that it's artistic imagery, but Luke is scrupulously factual in his narrative. If he writes it, you can believe he believed it happened, either because he witnessed it himself (as in some of the missionary journeys described later in the book) or heard it firsthand from an apostle or other reliable eyewitness account (Mary in his first book, for example.) So to dismiss the ascension of Christ as embarassing religious folderol, as some do, not only shows a prejudice against the uniqueness of Christ and the power of God, but also does a disservice to the book's terrific author.]

I give the disciples credit for being visionaries: "Then they gathered around him and asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?'”

Not unlike many American believers today, they long for godly restoration of their land. Today we pray for the Kingdom to come to America, a restoration of the puritan "shining city on a hill": stronger families, protection of the youngest and the oldest, little crime, peace within and without our borders, victory over addiction and all forms of ungodliness, and above all churches new and old packed with people hearing and obeying the Word. Were these things to happen even in part, I for one would shout loud hallelujahs and thank God for "thy ikingdom come."

There is an old Yiddish proverb that says, "man plans, God laughs." Unfettered by space, time and culture, his Kingdom perspective is so much BIGGER than mine. He told them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

He DOESN'T tell his friends that their country will be restored to its Davidic glory. Because, well, it won't. That's not the plan. History tells us that Israel became even more of a hotbed of insurrection and a thorn in the Roman lion's paw. So Rome did what you might expect: in the eighth decade of the first century, they laid waste to Jerusalem and sold many Jews and presumably Christians (remember Peter being led by others with hands outstretched, as in a line of slaves) into slavery throughout the Empire. And in this way and many others was the Kingdom brought to the Empire and "to the ends of the earth." Not the way I would choose for my family, church or country. Is it possible that some day America's army will be defeated and large armies taken prisoner, and that godly POWs will preach the word to their captors (Islamic? Communist? Who knows)? That would resemble the first century strategy of the Holy Spirit: Saving the World, One Spirit-Filled Slave At A Time. Sometimes the only catalyst for positive change is crisis. As another spiritual says, "I'll be a witness for my Lord." And may those who are enemies of the gospel "turn from their evil ways, and live."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

John 21: the passing of the shepherd's mantle

Nightime on the Sea of Galilee. Amid the rhythm of wind, wave and work, the men's thoughts turn to their teacher and lord, his brave death, and the strange events since. So much has changed, the men not least of all. Peter, humbled, but still a leader. Nathanael of Cana, hallowed site of the great wedding miracle. Thomas, without a doubt. The sons of Zebedee, no longer the vengeful Sons of Thunder. Together they work and wonder: what happens next? Then the teacher appears and another fish miracle happens and they share a meal with Jesus, for the last time on this earth.

And then, the passing of the shepherd's mantle. From the beginning the Good Shepherd has fed and protected the sheep. Now he must leave, and Peter must tend the flock. He somewhat painfully reminds Jesus that above all a shepherd must love Jesus. He also impresses on Peter that is he no longer a hired man free to go where he will. He must willingly be led to death with outstretched hands, dressed by another. Some traditions have Peter sent with hands bound to Rome with countless other Jews sold into slavery after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 72. It is a fact that Christians who refused to denounce Christ were wrapped in skins of goats and other animals and then fed to the lions in the arena. It is also a fact that the first 10 or so of the Bishops of Rome died martyr's deaths. Is this what Jesus predicts? Some day I will wade into the great cloud of witnesses, find Peter, and ask him myself. On the shores of Galilee, however, Peter knows no more than you or I do. But he knows is the Lord's command: "Follow me!"

John's gospel closes with a piece of literary hyperbole about how writing down everything Jesus did would result in more books than the world could hold. But - maybe not hyperbole. Now we see in part and know in part, but if everything Jesus did were known, how many science books could  be written about His mastery of the wind and waves and fish? How about a comprehensive chemistry book on turning water into wine? Or, turning nothing into the entire universe? This multi-volume set could be called "Genesis 1:1, Unabridged." How about the Acts of the Saints (ALL of them) describing every amazing grace of the Savior? Christian Book Distributors, eat your heart out.

I expect the list of books could go on literally into infinity. "We've no less days, to sing God's praise, than when we first begun."

What a blessing it has been to read and meditate over the gospels. The last time I read the gospels nonstop, I was struck by his powerful sense of his unique identity. This time, I have been struck by his refusal to compell any person to do anything, except by faith-led choice: "If any man be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me." Only the wind, waves and demons were commanded to obey.


Monday, May 2, 2011

John 20: Jesus and Osama

Late last night I was watching the Phillies-NY Mets game and heard people chanting, "USA, USA." Soon the play-by-play man announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US forces.

How do we understand a murdering zealot like OBL? Maybe by changing his name to Osama Bar Abbas. Truly this man was a son of Barabbas. The world knew his crimes, knew the death sentence upon him, and still chose him over the Prince of Peace who told his sword-waving follower Peter to put down his weapon, and said "those who live by the sword will die by the sword."

The death of this latter-day Bar Abbas was an act of justice. The state does not wield the sword for nothing; it punishes evil doers. What would the Jesus I have studied since Jan. 1 say about the events of last night? Would he celebrate? Say, "finally, the enemy is vanquished?" This is an open question, I really don't have the answer, and I hope to learn from the perspectives of my brothers and sisters.

But my initial thought is that Jesus wouldn't be running any victory laps. I think he might pray, "they Kingdom come, thy will be done" over BOTH the prideful Kingdom of the West, soaked in the greed and hedonism of godless liberty, and the equally prideful Principality of Sharia, subject to Pharisaical religious tyranny. He would pray that the Holy Spirit convict them of sin, righteousness and judgment.

And, apropos to John 20, he would pray that the power of the resurrection would overwhelm even the most stubborn disbelief. When Thomas sees Jesus, nail holes and all, Jesus calls him blessed to have seen and believed, but those who believe without seeing are even more blessed. Lord God, deliver the slaves from their chains by the resurrection freedom and power that comes through belief in your son. Your Kingdom come, your will be done. And as brother Francis prayed, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

John 19: The Man Vs. The System

Yesterday a sister commented on the John 18 post. Her good and gracious point about Peter's training and potential is included in the amended version of the post, which can be seen at http://oneyearbibleblogentry.blogspot.com/.

For any who might doubt the physical and moral courage of Jesus, read John 19. Flogged, mocked, tortured and beaten by Roman soldiers, he is then brought before their governor, the one man with the power to make the suffering end. It is not Jesus but Pilate who who is afraid and he responds with the empty threat of the middle-man trapped in an authoritarian system, "Don't you realize I have power to free you or to crucify you?"

Bloody, bruised, but unbowed, the Son of Man stands alone before his executioner and admonishes without hate or accusation, "you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." This is not bravado. It is courage born of truth and a rock-solid sense of his calling and identity. In some ways it resembles the old-fashioned military virtues of honor and duty: "because this is who I am, this is what I must do." The Nazarene is a truly free man, speaking and living truth unfettered by fear of what others may think, say and do. Behold the Man. Behold the Man. Behold the Man.