Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Christ and culture, 6.30.13

Leviticus 11:1-8. 13-18, 45-47
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: 2Speak to the people of Israel, saying: From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. 3Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat.

4But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 5The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 6The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. 7The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you… 13These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 14the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 15every raven of any kind; 16the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the water hen, the desert owl, the carrion vulture, 19the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat…

45For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46This is the law pertaining to land animal and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms upon the earth, 47to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.

Jesus set the agenda for the disciples at the beginning of Acts: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The story of Acts is a story of ever expanding circles. First the gospel spread to Jews in Jerusalem. Then, under persecution that scattered the church, the message spread throughout Judea. Before long, Philip and others started preaching to Samaritans and Jewish foreigners like the Ethiopian eunuch.

            In today’s passage the gospel takes another step and crosses the biggest barrier yet. We have a hard time getting how big a divide there was between Jews and gentiles in the first century. That’s because we are Christians living in a Christian culture. For Jews in the first century it was a totally different story.

Beginning in 63 BC the land of Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, which stretched from Spain to Jordan to Egypt. Within that empire, people had a fair amount of independence, but they were all required to bow to the Emperor. Subjects of the Roman Empire not only had to obey the Emperor, they also had to worship him along with their other gods.

Jews had a special and challenging standing in the Roman Empire. Because they were only allowed to worship God, Jews did not have to worship the emperor. Instead, they were required to pray to God for the emperor. That’s a pretty reasonable compromise, but it came with a cost, as faithfulness always does. Most of the social and economic life of the Empire took place around pagan temples, so it was off limits to Jews. They didn’t worship or socialize in the same ways their neighbors did so they did not fit in.

They kept themselves apart to protect their faithfulness to God. God called the Jewish people as God’s special people; that meant being different from their neighbors. With pagan neighbors in control of so many parts of life there were many temptations to blend in. But Jews knew that their faith called them to stand apart. Basically one’s entire life would have been defined by their Jewish identity. Everything, from food to friendships was seen through the lens of clean and unclean, as our passage from Leviticus points to.

            Jesus was Jewish. All the apostles were Jewish; so were the first several thousand Christians and all the leaders of the church. Until our story today, Christianity was an entirely Jewish movement. Given that, our story today represents a shocking change in direction.

Acts 10:1-20, 24-29a, 44-48
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection…

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
I’m interested in people who get out of their normal setting. People grow up in a place and culture. Culture is the air we breathe, the lens we see the world through. We believe things we don’t even know we believe because they are part of our culture. It takes active effort to go against the grain of the culture we grew up with.

Cornelius’s culture believed that Roman civilization was superior. Through its military strength and cultural refinement it had blessed most of the known world with peace, stability and learning beyond what they could have imagined otherwise. Pagan religion was important in that it provided celebrations and basic moral guidelines for society, but it generally wasn’t the most important part of people’s lives.

Peter’s culture believed Jews were superior to pagans, and assumed that one of the most important parts of staying faithful to God was keeping away from pagans. Even Jesus used gentiles as examples of what was wrong with the world. Peter and Cornelius both had culture pushing them away from each other. But God was clearly leading them together and leading both of them to step outside the boundaries of their cultures.

In our own world Christianity is like pagan religion was in Cornelius’s world. It is an important part of the culture we grew up with. Most people accept and identify with Christianity, but it is more a set of assumptions about the world than the ultimate commitment to Jesus that true faith is. Christianity shapes our view of the world like our nationality or political outlook or economic status.

Because we grew up in late twentieth century US Christianity we think it’s normal to vote in elections and think it’s normal that many people don’t vote. We think it’s normal to be able to express ourselves freely. We think it’s normal to believe in God and celebrate Christmas and be nice to other people. We think it’s normal to buy things and raise families and go to work.

Cornelius started to wonder about things; he found truth that echoed in his soul through teachings about the God of Israel. Maybe the truth he found there answered questions his pagan religion never had. Spending time in the synagogue, in a faith community his culture looked down on already started prying him loose from his culture. He let the truth of God shape his life and kept reaching out to God. Then God invited him to go deeper, to send for Peter so he could hear a word of salvation, a word that would change his life.

We don’t know anything else about how Cornelius and his friends and family responded to the message. We don’t know how their lives changed because of faith in Christ. But we do know that God doesn’t force faith on anyone, so the fact that the Holy Spirit fell on them must mean that they put their trust in Christ.

I’m inviting you to make the same choice today. Christ calls us to a faith that changes our lives. Going to church, even making church a high priority in our lives is not enough. Believing in Jesus means allowing him to set the course for our lives. It means making him the center of everything we do.

Conversion in our culture is a little different, both easier and harder, than it was in Cornelius’s time. He was converting from pagan religion and culture and I am inviting you to convert from a culture that says it is Christian to a true devotion to Jesus that will change your life. It’s easier because Jesus is already part of our landscape, because we already have a faith community. It’s harder because the lines are blurry so it’s easy to fall back to cultural Christianity that is nothing but a label.

            I struggle with that everyday. Every part of faith is constantly in motion in my life. There are moments of faith and moments of doubt. There are times when I feel sure that greater openness is what the church needs and other times that I am sure we need more commitment (really, we need both). There are times I worry that I will be judged and come up short and other times I’m sure that God’s love will prevail in everyone’s life when the judgment comes. I am uncertain about many things in faith, but I am certain of one thing. I am certain of Jesus Christ. I’m certain that Jesus loves us and offers us salvation from fear and selfishness.

            The more I think about what it means to be a minister of the gospel in this time and place, the more convinced I am of a few things. Only God gives faith, and it is no one’s job to judge faith but God’s. My job is to remind you that God loves you absolutely and that Christ died for you. My job is to invite you, to invite everyone, actually, but especially you, to repent, to turn to God and to put your trust in Jesus Christ.

            I’m not going to put a limit on God’s salvation. I can’t tell you who is saved or not saved. I’m not going to tell you you have to believe x, y or z. But I am going to invite you to put your trust in God and to decide to make Jesus the Lord of your life. Making that decision is not a one time thing; it’s a decision we reaffirm with all our other decisions. It’s a commitment we will do better at some days than others. Christ calls us to more than the cultural Christianity we grew up with. Christ calls us to trust, to let go of our fear and to follow.

            We all decide and trust in different ways. If physical action helps you own a commitment, I invite you right now, while I am still speaking, to come up to the front as a sign of your commitment. If you want to make that commitment silently in your heart, that’s fine. And if you don’t know where God is leading you, if you’re not sure you can commit to trusting in Jesus all the way, that’s fine too. However you feel led to respond to Christ’s calling in this moment is OK.

            What I will say, not to pressure but to invite, is that religion is not entertainment. It’s not something we do to fit in or because we always have. Christianity means following Jesus in our lives. We are not talking about light things; we’re not talking about an interesting teaching to learn more about; we’re talking about the very shape of our lives. Jesus didn’t die to give us something to do on Sunday morning; he died to free us from sin and death. And he calls us to a life shaped in every way by love and grace.

            Thanks be to God. Let us pray.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Instruments in the sypmphony of God's grace

Isaiah 43:1-3
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

This is a long passage and I want you to hear it first as a whole. The Bible is one story, about God’s love for us and the twists and turns that takes. It’s also a bunch of stories, each with its own integrity. So I want to talk about this whole story before we dive in. We read earlier about how Saul was an approving witness when Stephen was executed. We also read that he was a leader in the persecution that drove Christians out of Jerusalem. Here we continue the strange story of Saul.

Acts 9:1-9
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

23After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.

27But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Now that you’ve heard the whole story, I want to focus on one part of it, but without losing the whole story we’ve just read. As I’ve read and reread this passage the word that keeps tugging at me is “instrument.” Maybe the first time you read or hear this passage the word doesn’t make much of an impression. Can you remember where the word “instrument” comes up in the passage?

            The Lord is talking to a disciple named Ananias. God tells him to go to Judas’s house and there he’ll find a man named Saul, who is praying. Saul will be expecting Ananias and Ananias is supposed to lay hands on Saul so he can get his sight back.

            Ananias is taken aback. Saul is the biggest enemy of the church right now. He’s in Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus and take them to the chief priests in Jerusalem. God tells Ananias: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

            That word, “instrument” has been tugging at me all week, and even before. And then it broke open for me in a whole new way through God’s amazing gift of music. Maggie and I went to see Pink Martini on Friday as part of Jazz Fest. If you don’t know Pink Martini, you really should. They’re incredibly eclectic. During the concert on Friday they sang in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and Croatian. Most of their songs are jazz with female lead vocals. Some are new renditions of old favorites and others are original. One piece was basically straight up classical music with a violin and guitar. The band on stage included a trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, piano, upright bass, guitar and two drum sets as well as tambourines and such. The concert as a whole blew me away and opened my heart and mind in some ways I’m not at the bottom of yet, to say the least.

            The part of the show that’s related to our passage was a song called U Plavu Zoru, which means “At Blue Dawn” in Croatian. The song starts out with an unbelievable cello solo. Unbelievable, not because it is technically difficult, though I’m sure it is, but because it’s so emotionally intense. For that moment the cello is the whole world. It’s speaking right to your heart and all you can do is listen totally captivated.

            As the piece moves on, the cello takes on a rhythm that reminds you of a train, because the song is about a train taking the singer far away from someone she loves. Then the cello steps out of the spotlight and becomes just a sound effect of a train running on its tracks. The other instruments take over and the cello disappears completely to make way for the rest of the band. That piece and the show as a whole made me think a lot about what it means to be an instrument.

            What is an instrument? Usually we think of musical instruments, but we can also think about scientific instruments like test tubes and stirring rods. We can think about architectural instruments like a straight edge and compass for drawing buildings not yet built. An instrument is something that someone uses for a purpose; it is a tool.

            So if Saul is God’s chosen instrument to proclaim the gospel, especially to gentiles and people in power, that means that God will use Saul for that purpose. And even though Saul is the author of a quarter of the New Testament, it is not about him. He is a servant in a bigger story. Sometimes, like the cello solo, he is the central voice. His teaching and preaching ministry was important, and even early on, he was the target of criticism and persecution. But even when he’s the center of a community or a book, the story isn’t his. He is an instrument, not the composer.

            As I think about this passage and about instruments, I think also about the lesser-known characters in this story. As far as I know, this is the only time we hear about Ananias. But at a time when the world was turned upside down and everything was dark for Saul, Ananias is the one who brought healing and hope. Ananias was the one who first welcomed Saul to the community of disciples, who restored his sight and baptized him into the body of Christ.

Barnabas made a brief appearance earlier when he sold a field and gave the proceeds to the church. Here he appears as Saul’s way in to the community in Jerusalem. We don’t know how he and Paul met, but Barnabas believed him and helped convince other leaders he could be trusted. Paul and Barnabas end up traveling together to spread the good news. Ananias and Barnabas don’t have huge parts in the symphony of faith, but without their roles, without them as instruments of God’s grace, the song wouldn’t be the same.

            The community of faith is like an orchestra. Each instrument is important, but it is the sound of the whole thing that matters most. For the whole orchestra to sound good, every musician has to practice on their own with dedication and they have to play their heart out on stage. At the same time, they also have to put the whole ahead of themselves. They need to merge their sound with that of their neighbors. Sometimes they have to hold themselves back so their neighbor’s sound will come through more clearly. Sometimes, they have to be totally silent for the sake of the overall effect, though even in silence, they are part of the composition.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

sharing our faith

Acts 8:1-13
And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

4Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8So there was great joy in that city.

9Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

Acts 8:26-40
26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
            When Jesus gave his last instructions to the disciples, he told them that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Faithful to Jesus’ direction, the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit and then began to tell the story of God’s amazing grace in Christ. Last week Susan shared the story of Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith. Stephen’s murder began a wider persecution that scattered the church, but God used that scattering to spread the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria and, eventually to the ends of the earth.

            What I love about these two stories, especially the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, is that the Spirit leads and Philip follows. The Spirit tells him to go to the chariot. He doesn’t know who is in it or what he’s going to do with this chariot, but he trusts that he will know what to do when he gets there.

Notice how Philip approaches the man in the chariot. He hears him reading scripture, so he opens the conversation by asking about it. He doesn’t force his way in. He doesn’t attack the man’s beliefs or push Christ on him in some aggressive way. He doesn’t start the conversation in a confrontational way. “Do you know where you’re going to spend eternity,” is almost never the best way to open a conversation. Instead Philip listens to what the man is reading and then asks a simple, respectful question.

            Miracle stories are sometimes hard to related to, since I don’t have any experience with miracles. But I can ask a question and tell a story, and so can you, so this story is easy to relate to. Philip is an especially good example of evangelism for our time. People are skeptical about authority telling them what to do or believe. But people are also hungry for meaning. In the aftermath of a Christian culture, most people know that the church has something to do with a man named Jesus. They know there’s something about eternal life, sin and salvation. But they don’t necessarily know the story, and more importantly, they don’t know the story is for them because no one has invited them recently.

            People need Christ, and you can reach people no one else can reach. As a disciple of Jesus you have what you need to evangelize like Philip, so let’s break it down. The first step is having a strong faith. You can’t share what you don’t have. Many of us mildly believe or mildly don’t believe in God, but we don’t do anything to change that. Going to church each week isn’t going to make you believe in God, it takes something more than that.

            Here’s a simple experiment I want you to try this week if you’re feeling unsure in your faith. Act like you believe in God this week. Pray frequently like you’re talking to someone who really cares about you. Don’t worry about saying the right words, just talk. Read scripture ready to hear a word to you. Spend some time in silence reflecting on who God made you and how you can use your gifts. Don’t spend time wondering if God is real; for the moment, just assume that he is and live like it.

What I think you’ll find is that as you actively reach out for God, you’ll find him. It might not be obvious or dramatic, but the more you practice relying on God and listening to God, the clearer God’s presence will become in your life. But you need to reach out.

The next step in evangelizing like Philip is to open your ears and your eyes and your heart so you can see where God is leading you. Keep doing the things you do: go to work, spend time with friends and family, play golf. As you do all your normal things, pay attention. Who is hurting? Who seems to need some hope? What do your friends worry about? Is one of your coworkers going through a hard time?

As you pay attention, make yourself available to the people God puts in your path. Be open to them. Allow yourself to feel with them. Listen to what they say and listen to how God prompts you to respond. Trust God to lead you and say what you feel your heart leading you to say. Usually you’ll listen more than you will talk. People in pain first need to know someone is listening to them and cares about them.

Sometimes it will feel right to share a word of faith; a simple phrase of God’s truth can be a beam of hope for them that will guide them to the next step. Often people need to hear something like: You are not alone. God hasn’t given up on you. God cares about you. God loves you.

Give a word of hope. Give it honestly and then listen. Sometimes a simple phrase about God’s love unleashes a flood of doubt, or grief, or hurt, or longing. Be ready to hear uncomfortable things. Listen to them, patiently, lovingly. Don’t listen like you’re waiting to respond; listen to really hear what the person is saying. Listen for the words and the meaning behind the words. Let them know you are listening.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

back to the beginning

Acts 1:15-26
15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

            My goal for today is a little ambitious, but if you stick with me, we can do it. I’d like to give a brief introduction to the Book of Acts and its historical setting as a whole. Then I’d like to catch us up to where we are now, so that we’re all on the same page as we start this series on Acts. Finally, I’d like to dig into the passages for today to think a little bit about Church leadership, since today we will elect leaders for the coming year.

My hope this summer is not only to work through the whole story of Acts in worship, but also to set up some small group opportunities so we can engage the story at a deeper level through discussion. I encourage you to read the Book of Acts on your own. If you get my daily readings, you’ll get a lot of it that way, but it will give you a great foundation if you read the whole story through on your own. I’d recommend shooting for 5 chapters a week, but read the first 7 chapters this week to be ready for next week. That’s a great pace to absorb, miss a day here and there, and also keep some momentum.

First, why Acts? This generation is a time of huge change in the church. Many of us remember the 1950’s and 60’s as a great time for church. The values of the church were widely shared in the culture: even those who didn’t belong to a church knew the story of Jesus and many of the core beliefs of Christianity. Churches were typically well attended and growing, and the postwar boom in US economic and social life enriched the church.

            That’s not the case today. When I think about friends my age, not counting pastors, only a few go to church outside of Christmas or Easter. While politicians still usually find it necessary to claim religious affiliation, and most people respect Christianity in general, the church doesn’t have the political and social clout it once had.

            There are a lot of reasons for these changes, and the rough sketch I offer this morning leaves out a lot and can’t do justice to the complexity of the story. Starting in the 1960’s the pace of social change accelerated. Civil rights movements and the women’s movement uncovered oppression that had gone unquestioned by many before, upsetting the false calm of the dominant social system.

            Related to that, many people came to distrust institutions in general, and the church is an institution. Sins of the organized church from sex and abuse to financial misconduct came to light, further eroding trust in the church. People are also aware of greater diversity of religion, culture and outlook, so Western, Christian culture no longer has the monopoly it once had.

            All those changes and more have left the church smaller, weaker and less central to society than we were two generations ago. Often that makes us nervous, so we wish for and try to recreate those “golden years” of our youth when the church was full, the finances were strong and there were great programs for every group within the church.

            It’s never going to be 1960 again. The institutional wealth and stability the church had then is not coming back, and that is great news for the church. Like all gospel, like all good news that matters at a deep level, the good news about change in the church is not easy; it’s difficult and disruptive, but it can help transform us into the people and the community God wants us to be.

            Instead of looking to the sixties, we’ll do better if we look back at our real roots, which is the church’s birth told in the Book of Acts. There are two big reasons for that. The first is that the change we need in the church isn’t tinkering around the edges; it’s a fundamental recreation of the organization. After Jesus returned to heaven the disciples had to build something that had never existed. Their first creation of the church by the Holy Spirit’s guidance is the best instruction we can have for recreating the church today.

            The second reason for digging into Acts is that there are a lot of similarities of the first century to our time, so looking at how the church navigated that culture can help us navigate our own.

            Let’s start this adventure with some historical background. Alexander the Great unified most of the Mediterranean world about 300 years before Jesus was born, and the Roman Empire took over and continued that consolidation a hundred years later. While many other languages were spoken, Greek, and much later Latin, provided a common language for most of the known world. The stability of a strong empire made travel and communication relatively safe and easy with good roads, a reliable postal system and many seaports.

            The first century was a global time. Greek philosophy and religions coexisted with religious ideas from Egypt, Asia and parts of Europe. Ideas, foods, market products and people could travel widely, and many big cities enjoyed being cosmopolitan and sampling the diversity of the world.

            The economics of the Empire were not entirely healthy. While trade flourished, the far-flung military obligations of a huge empire created severe financial strain. Taxes were high, especially in conquered areas. Society was divided economically with little upward mobility. Rome and other cities were nowhere near self-sustaining, and most people there relied on government distribution of food.

            With all the advances and changes in commerce as well as many people forced to move by Roman conquest or economic forces, many people felt isolated from their native culture without a community to support them. The dangers and uncertainties of life made many people feel like they had no control over their destiny. People believed parts of different religions, and the official Roman faith imported gods and ideas from many areas into the traditional religion of Greece and Rome.

            I imagine you recognize some parallels with our own time here. From diversity to communication to a global economy full of opportunity and instability, many parts of our current world resemble the Roman Empire. In some ways English plays the role of world language and Western commercial culture plays the role of Roman civilization. Then, as now, there are opportunities for communication that allowed the Christian faith to spread quickly and people who were hungry for good news and real community.

            Perhaps the most important part of that landscape for us is that in those days the church was tiny. It had very little organization, basically no property and negligible power. In that setting, the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world within a generation. That was the time of the church’s greatest faithfulness and most dynamic growth.

            Christianity is supposed to be a movement of people giving their lives for God’s love, not a powerful institution forcing others to listen to us. The message of a crucified God is one that is best told humbly and with love, not at the point of a sword or in a setting where people have to believe to fit into society. Losing our dominant place in the culture is the best path to faithfulness to God’s calling, but it means we need to let go of some of our ideas of church to make space for God’s idea about church.

            That’s the big picture, so let’s catch up with our part of the story. Acts is Part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. It starts where Part 1 left off, with the risen Jesus spending time with his disciples. Jesus tell his disciples that their job is to take the message of God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth, but first, they need to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus rises into heaven to return at the right time.

            As Susan read, the first thing the disciples did after that was to elect a new apostle to take Judas’ place. After that they did what Jesus said, they waited in Jerusalem with lots of prayer and fellowship. 10 days after Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples were together in an upper room when the Holy Spirit came down and filled them with power and the ability to tell God’s news in other languages. Peter told the crowd about Jesus and thousands of people became part of the movement right away.

            Soon after that Peter and John heal a man in the temple. They make it real clear that Jesus’ power is responsible for the healing, not them. The religious leaders arrest and interrogate them, but eventually let the disciples go after warning them to stop talking about Jesus. Obviously, the disciples are not going to do that and soon they are arrested and released again. They pray for boldness to tell the story and the church keeps growing.

Members of the church care for each other so radically that they share what they have so no one is in need. There are problems too: then as now money can be a temptation and some people wanted the credit for giving their property away while holding on to some of what they have. Overall, commitment continues to grow and even people who are too scared to join the church respect and admire the disciples. That’s where our story picks up:

Acts 6:1-7
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.

3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

            Even early in the church, the believers recognized that leaders were important. Jesus had appointed 12 apostles even though there were many more who followed him. The early church kept the tradition of having 12 apostles, so they elect Matthias to serve that role, though many others continue to have leadership responsibility, including women.

            As the church grew, so did its leadership needs. In this case, the important ministry of caring for the most vulnerable members of the community, the widows, was getting too difficult for whoever was handling it. Specifically, while the Aramaic speaking or Hebraic Jews were being served, it seems that some of the Hellenistic or, Greek speaking, Jewish widows were not being cared for adequately.

            The twelve apostles couldn’t spend more time on that, since their main calling was preaching the word, so they asked the community to pray and chose people appropriate for the job the community needed done. That’s just what we’re doing today. When our worship draws to a close we will pray for God’s guidance, and, like the early church, we will chose people to lead this congregation.

            The leadership those people provide will be important for the growth and guidance of our community in the year to come. Each person has been nominated because the committee sees specific gifts of wisdom, organization, practicality, care, love and creativity in them.

While we choose specific people for leadership ministries at specific times in the church’s life, that doesn’t change the bedrock fact that each of us who follows Jesus also has a calling. This is not a church of leaders and spectators. Like the early church, we are called to be a community of disciples. We are each called to follow Jesus, to grow in our faith, to minister to each other and to the world in Christ’s name. Some people are called to specific jobs, but all Christians are called to lives of faith and service.

As we’ll see next week, the folks the church chose for the ministry of “waiting on tables,” didn’t limit themselves to that. One of these new servants, Stephen, preaches powerfully, maintains his courage in the face of persecution, and becomes the first martyr for the good news of Jesus Christ. That wasn’t in the job description to which he was elected, but it was a consequence of following his calling as a Christian and as a leader in his time.

I hope none of the folks we elect today will have to face trial and execution. At the same time, the reason the church was so successful in those days was that the leaders and members of the church were ready to die for their faith. Everyone who joined the church was actively choosing a new life committed to Christ and to community and different from the society around them. That situation created a church that was strong, compelling and knew its purpose.

I pray that the loss of the church’s power in society renews our sense of purpose. I pray as we lose the material benefits of belonging to the in crowd of a culture that thinks it is Christian, we will gain the spiritual benefits of freely choosing a path different from the majority and clearly committed to love. That is my prayer for our new and continuing leaders and my prayer for the whole church as God recreates the church in this age. May it be so for you and for me.

Thanks be to God.