Everyone has a Story

This week’s lesson from 2 Chronicles 15: 1-7 seems especially obscure and challenging. Yet, I think we can find some nuggets to share with our class.So far this month, we’ve determined that:
  • God’s Spirit (God’s Ruach, his breath) is in everyone.  Not everyone is aware of God’s Spirit’s presence – a part of salvation is the awareness that God is in us.
  • God’s Spirit can speak into a community through leaders and community members alike, to help give direction and identity to the people of God.
  • God’s Spirit is absolutely necessary in hearing and responding to God’s call.

So, in today’s scripture from 2 Chronicles 15:1-7, we find the first and last mention of Azariah, son of Oded.  Azariah has a message for Asa, King of Judah, and the people of Judah.  Simply put, if you’re with God, then God will be with you.  If you’re not with God, God will not be found.  While God could be understood as temperamental or this message could be interpreted as an “earn your salvation” theology, we know there must be more to this. After all, if this was literally the way God behaved, what hope would anyone have?

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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

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One New People – January 15, 2017

Our Formations lesson this week is a good one.  Its one that is especially timely and challenging for us at the outset of 2017.  Our focus has been on Christ Our Savior.  If we believe Christ is our savior, then our habits, actions, and words should reflect this fact.  Our lessons have been looking at different behaviors in which this truth should be clearly visible.  First, we have considered what we are willing to loose or give up so that we can fully follow Jesus.  Last week we considered what we have been saved from and for what we are being saved.
This Sunday we consider how, in Christ, we are a new, unified people.  The key question is:  Whom do I need to embrace as a brother or sister in Christ?  This is timely as we stand a week away from the inauguration of a new president and one day from MLK day observance.  On many fronts, 2016 was a year that our nation and even the whole world seemed divided.  This includes people of faith.  How are Paul’s words instructive to followers of Christ, who are to be a witness to God’s unified and coming kingdom?

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