Available in All Circumstances

Sometimes it’s the smallest, most simple act that brings about the most profound change.  It is easy to read Acts 21 simply as an aside in Paul’s larger story.  His ministry to the gentiles and his journey to Jerusalem seem to be the narrative that grabs our attention.  In fact, lectionary readings (those resources the larger church uses to guide us through teaching and preaching most of the Bible in a three year period) skips this scene.  But there is actually a lot Philip can teach us about our day to day commitment to the gospel at our local level.  Is there truly any insignificant service on behalf of Christ? Continue reading

Ready for Holy Encounters?

Our text for Sunday is a rich story with numerous applications. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch signifies for the first time, the gospel message reaching acceptance at the ends of the earth. The Eunuch’s status is also informative. While wealthy and holding a position of power, he is also seen as strange and an outsider, having been robbed of his identity as a male and his ability to leave a family legacy. So, when he is found reading from a text in Isaiah (the suffering servant), it’s a text with which he can also identify. Jewish law excludes the Ethiopian Eunuch from full embrace within the Jewish faith precisely because the Ethiopian is a foreigner and because he is a Eunuch (Deuteronomy 23:1). But Isaiah 53, which the Eunuch is reading, along with the gospel message of Christ that Philip presents, signals that Jesus has opened the door for all creation to know and follow God. If Isaiah 53 isn’t direct enough, just a few chapters later, Isaiah 56 really points to a future time when foreigners and eunuchs will be included in God’s kingdom:

“Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” – Isaiah 56:1-8

The focus on this Sunday’s lesson is not from the perspective of the eunuch but from Philip. Philip is willing to share good news with anyone with whom he shares the journey. First, he proclaims the gospel to the unruly neighbors to the north – the Samaritans. God’s Spirit does the rest. Then, he obediently journeys into the desert in the middle of the day (who does that?) And finds an exotic foreigner reading texts from a faith community that excludes his kind. Once again, God is at work.

So, the question for this Sunday shouldn’t be “to whom have I been sent?” Rather, might we ask “to whom have I not been sent?” The answer – everyone, of course! God doesn’t exclude. We should be looking for holy moments throughout our day to share good news with whomever we cross paths. This includes people who are like us and people who are different. After all, “red and yellow, black and white, they are (all) precious in his sight.”

For further reflection, I recommend the following short blogs:

My Circumstances Won’t Define Me

Acts 8:4-17

How can I serve despite my circumstances?

How many of us know someone who is like Eeyore?  For these folks, all situations seem dark and gloomy.  No matter what the challenge, folks like these seem to find the worst in all situations.

But I bet we also know folks who see a golden outline in every seemingly dark situation.  They are the folks that can lift you up and who want to keep going when all seems hopeless.

Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between.  There are days when all seems lost, hopeless.  There are also days that we find strength beyond ourselves to keep pressing on.  Our lesson for this week is that:

  • God is at work in all situations
  • so all things can work together for God’s glory (Romans 8:28)
  • so how can I be available to see God at work and join God at work, no matter my circumstance?

This last bullet gets to the heart of the Christian vocation.  We confess that as disciples, we have been set a part and gifted with the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s presence here in our time and place.  Life here and now will not be perfect.  Rarely will things be easy.  So how do we become the sort of people (both collectively as a congregation and individually) that recognizes God at work and then gladly joins in that work?  How do we learn to praise and worship him in all circumstances?

It seems that when we focus only on our needs and wants, our list of complaints and reasons why we “can’t” only grows.  The mark of a growing disciple is one who seeks to lean in on God’s provisions and grace, despite the situation around them.  Philip is the Biblical example the lesson uses this Sunday.  I’ve tried to think of others.  One that sticks out in my mind is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor.  I’ve been reading some of his works recently and he strikes me as a man who has really learned to lean fully on God’s provisions in the face of a cruel humanity.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer, a widely respected thinker, could have avoided much of the pain that his German countrymen were facing by staying in the US during World War II.  But he felt called to be among his people so that he could fully participate in their struggle during the war and then participate in a rebuilding after the war.  Despite the Nazi Government’s crackdown on his free speech and though he was eventually imprisoned and put to death in a concentration camp, Bonhoeffer was used by God to train young seminarians and to write what would become very influential books on practical theology that continue to speak to folks of what it looks like to follow Christ.

Perhaps this clip of Bonhoeffer’s life (its 7 minutes) is one example you can give your class of how a person can be available to be used by God, no matter the circumstances.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship

I like this example, but it is an extreme example.  We can be inspired but can we relate?  There are more folks who live like this in front us day in and day out.  Can you think of any?  Encourage your class to think of examples, too.

One LIFE community teacher had a really good question this week about our the focal scripture: At the end of Acts 8:15-17 it says Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed that the believers would receive the Holy Spirit.  Does this mean when we are baptized we don’t receive the Holy Spirit.  Is it only by laying on of hands?

My response was kinda long, but here it is:

No – the giving of the Holy Spirit does not come only through laying on of hands or through baptism.  Acts proves that nothing can really limit the ways in which God will show up and act through the Holy Spirit.  This one instance in Acts 8 cannot reflect the varied ways that God makes his Holy Spirit available to those who follow in the way of Christ.  Seeing that many have had your same question, one theologian, in response to this scripture, says:
“Attempts to extract from this story of the laying on of hands “data” for the construction of a systematic doctrine of the Holy Spirit are futile.  Luke’s narrative descriptions of the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to believers defy the construction of a coherent doctrine.”

Here are some examples of the many ways the Holy Spirit is given in the book of Acts:

  • Acts 2:4 – describes receipt of the Holy Spirit without mentioning baptism
  • Acts 2:38 – baptism joined with receipt of the Holy Spirit
  • Acts 8:16,17 – Baptism, followed by laying on of hands, followed by receipt of the Spirit
  • Acts 8:38 and 16:15 – Baptism, with no mention of laying on of hands or the Spirit
  • Acts 9:17-18 – Laying on of hands, followed by receipt of the Holy Spirit, followed by baptism
  • Acts 10:47-48 and 11:15-16 – Receipt of the Holy Spirit, without laying on of hands, followed by baptism

So, there appears to be no defined order or strategy in Acts.  What is important in our text for Sunday and throughout Acts is the story of how the Christian movement expands, at the direction of the Holy Spirit, toward the ends of the earth.  Beginning with Acts 1:8, we see the expansion of the good news beyond the Jewish community of Jerusalem.  When Peter and John come to Samaria and lay hands on the new believers, their action can be understood as the apostles approving of and joining God in this growing community of believers.  Acts is a story about the community of believers and how they grew beyond the gates of Jerusalem.  That God is working in a place that most Jews despised (Samaria) and that the leadership of the church approved, is an important development in the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

To further illustrate this point, in Acts 10, Peter goes to the home of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.  While sharing the gospel with him, his family and others in the home, the Holy Spirit comes upon all who were listening.  Verse 45 says the “circumcised believers were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on even the Gentiles.”    Then Peter says “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water.  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  In all of these stories, its about the widening inclusivity of the gospel of Christ – it is for everyone.

Honoring God or Self?

There is a paradox in life that seems to only be learned by experience.  Sometimes, the things we strive for the most are the things that in the end become our undoing.  Things we think are worthwhile or beneficial end up hurting us.  An example:  Many feel that the best gift they can give their family is security.  So they work hard, insuring that their work provides the best in life to their spouse and children.  All the while, what their children needed the most, what would have been the best gift, was mommy or daddy at home, spending time with them.  Harry Chapin’s song, Cats in the Cradle comes to mind.  I am sure you can think of other examples.

In our scripture for this week (I’d recommend using all of 2 Samuel 7:1-16), we find David, fresh off being established as the new King of Israel, in a moment of reflection.  And, like I am sure we’ve also done, he realizes how good he’s got it compared to others.  Except this time, the “other” is God!

Something should be done!  I’ve got to do something about this!  I’ve reacted this way in situations that I find inequitable.  I am sure the reader has an easy time identifying with David here.  What could be wrong about giving God a rightful home, when David finds himself so comfortable in his own?

Only God did not ask David for a home (2 Samuel 7:6-7).  Does David’s assumption looks a lot like ours?  We know what needs to be done on God’s behalf, so let’s get busy doing it.  Except, do we ask God if what we are busy doing really needs to be done?  For whose glory do set out to work?  Who is in control here?

At the end of my email signature, I include a quote from Bono, the lead singer in the band U2.  (I’ve been inspired by U2’s unique way of living out their genuine love of God and have loved their music since I was a young.)  His quote simply says:

Stop asking God to bless what you are doing.  Find out what God is doing.  It’s already blessed.
-Bono

Perhaps David could have used Bono’s advice in his day.  Luckily, he had Nathan.  While we can’t know for certain if David’s motivation was pure or self serving in purposing the construction of a permanent home for God, God quickly lets Nathan know this will not be David’s role.  (For helpful insight into possible tensions of motivation underlying the construction of a temple, read this short article:  http://www.nextsunday.com/formations-02-19-2017-tension-and-resolution/)

If David hoped to glorify God with a new home while also using God’s favor to bolster his kingship, God is quick to turn David’s plans on its head.  Instead of David building God a home, God desires to build David and his family a home and a legacy in which their faithfulness will bring God honor.  If David thought he was doing God a favor, David finds out that God doesn’t need any favors.  God is ready to serve and build up David’s throne for Godly purposes,  not the other way around.

U2’s famous song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, from their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, outlines a man’s quest to find the one thing that will bring him purpose, pleasure and meaning.  The thing is, everything he strives for fails him – even when he reaches out in genuine faith toward Christ and his coming Kingdom.  “What’s that about?” we are left wondering.  Riches, lust, fame, and power are but fleeting attempts at immortality that fail.  But God, too?  Perhaps Bono’s lyrics reveal a subtle truth: until you are really willing to let go of control and all outcomes and really be led by God, even your attempts to live for God will fail.

We, the benefactors of God’s covenant and steadfast love, need to pay attention to the ways we respond to God’s love.  As “works in progress,” there are sometimes subtle differences in the way we seek to honor God in our life.  Are we sometimes tempted to use God’s favor in such a way that brings us glory, instead of God?  If our chief desire is to bring ourselves glory, how will that backfire?

To introduce this concept, have the class try their hand at a few optical illusions.  There are three links below to classic illusions.  What you may see at first blush may not be what is really there.  How can subtle differences in this art illustrate the sometimes mixed motives we bring to seeking our will over God’s?  How can we begin to tell the difference between right motives and self-serving ones?

May God bless you as you wrestle with God’s living word!

Covenants Guide Us Through the In-Between Times

How do you remember your past?  Are there important stories from your past that have played a role in who you are today?  Are there pictures, objects, even artifacts that you display prominently in you home or office that help you remember where you came from, who you are and what is important?  Perhaps as you begin the lesson, you can bring in a picture, an object, or a story from you past to share with the class.  You might decide to encourage the class to share some of their “stories of origin.”  Doing so builds community and trust. It also sets the stage nicely for this Sunday’s lesson!

Covenants (legal and binding promises) aren’t about the past, however.  Making commitments to one another (marriages come to mind as an example) are about the future.  Such a promise, from one person to another, is a forward-looking agreement in which both sides make commitments of action on behalf of the other.

Continue reading

The Mysterious and Life-Giving Journey with God

Journey is a major theme in the Bible and it comes to readers early.  Adam and Eve journey away from the garden, due to their sin that separates them from God.  Noah and his family take a journey in a boat that puts them in a new place and in a new creation, once the waters recede.  Then, we meet Abram.  And we met him because God abruptly calls him to leave home to go to a place he will later show him (12:1).  Abram’s journey with God lasts from Genesis 12 – 25.  All of it a journey without arriving at a final destination.  There are high and low points, and they are all learning points for Abram.  Continue reading

A Sweeping Victory -January 22, 2017

Our Bible Study lessons this month have illustrated the power of Christ to transform our lives from an inward, shackled, dead-end existence to a life of purpose.  We find in Christ’s work the freedom to give up things that have held us back (January 1), the knowledge that God has a plan and purpose in mind for those he loves (January 8), the desire to embrace others as brothers and sisters in Christ (January 15) and the assurance that even in difficult times, God will always be very near (this Sunday).

In Romans 8, Paul echos the Old Testament prophets when he says God doesn’t break his promises or abandon his people.  In fact, through Jesus, we are absolutely integral to his plan for all of creation!   But the old adage holds true in the life of faith: anything worthwhile will also include challenges and even a little pain.  Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out how, through Jesus, God has created a way forward for people who are otherwise defeated by the law – people like you and me.  Through Christ, we are gifted a brand new life in order to participate in God’s making all things new!

Understanding what comes before our focal scripture will be helpful in teaching what God has in store for our classes to hear this Sunday.

In chapter 7, Paul has become very honest as he describes how he struggles with sin – sin the law has made so evident that it feels like a death sentence.  The law helps him understand that sin is wrong but his “earthly flesh” can’t resist it – can’t help but to sin again and it leaves him in a state of helplessness; ready to give up.

However, chapter 8 offers a big corrective to this helplessness we all experience.  The law is correct – we are never going to be right before God.  Sin is too much a part of our lives and in our world.  Those who think they can be “good” and keep the law end up being self-focused, concerned about themselves and unable to carry out their critical role that God has for them in the redemption of the world. Self-righteous people are a turn-off to others who recognize their helplessness before the law.  They are not a living picture of the gospel at work!

For those who are able to admit their helplessness, who are at the end of their rope, the life saving and life altering gift of Jesus is their breath of new life into dry bones.  People who admit they are broken are a living picture of the gospel at work!

Attention to God gets us outside ourselves; living for others.  The Message version says “Focus on self is the opposite of focus on God.”

When the gospel is embraced, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives which help us interpret everything through the lens of Jesus’ life.  We become God focused.  Sin will still happen but when the limitations of sin rear its ugly head, the life-giving work of God in Jesus is there to off-set and give us reassurance.

We are not going back to our old way of life.  Our new life does have purpose.    “We experience life on God’s terms” – we are no longer slaves to the law that reminded us how defeated we were.  “We are more than conquerors.” (Romans 8:37)  We are forgiven.  So don’t wallow in self-pity.  Romans 8 :12-14 in the Message reads:

“God’s Spirit beckons.  There are things to do and places to go!”

Through Jesus, God is birthing a new thing through those he has called.  Everything in creation is sensing this, Paul says, like a pregnant mother, who knows she has to go through the pain of childbirth in order to experience the joy of a new life she helped create.

These “birth pangs” or “labor pains” bring us to our focal scripture.  Paul wants us to remember that the birth of something new also means the death of what has been.  The old way will not go quietly.  Whether it is our old, sinful nature or the communal sin that favors some and excludes others, change for something better is painful.  Giving up control in order to embrace the freedom of God’s “something new” isn’t always easily embraced.  As Martin Luther King pointed out, sometimes Christ followers are called to “trouble the waters” so that what once held dominion in our world can make room for a new way.  Hopefully that new way is the Kingdom of God that fully gives authority to God and freedom to all of his creation.

So, what are the labor pains that we endure as Christ followers?  What are the labor pains that our world endures when the tension of what is (our sinful nature) and what should be (a time of peace with Christ as King) are realized?

Do these labor pains embolden us or do they make us doubt God’s promise?  Likely, these pains bring about both reactions in our life.  Life is not guaranteed to be easy for anyone.  Doubt is a normal part of life and does not indicate a lack of faith.  Often, it indicates a robust faith.  A resigned life that gives up on God and on hope is the absence of faith.

So, Paul, knowing that God’s people will endure trials, concludes with a grand message of hope for we who “trouble the waters” on behalf of the redemptive purposes of God.  Truly, Paul says, nothing will separate us from God’s love.  Nothing!

Here are two video possibilities to use in conjunction with your lesson:

False Narratives about God’s Love, with James Bryan Smith
First six minutes, in particular.  The author of The Good and Beautiful God series describes his struggles of believing false narratives of a God.

Ragamuffin Reflections – When your loosing your faith

Blessed is the poor in spirit. (9 minutes long)

 

Blessings as you facilitate your class in experiencing God’s love and moving them to trouble the waters in Christ’s name!