Open Our Hearts!

“Open Our Hearts!”

Acts 16 St. Lydia

Acts 16:6-15 – August 30, 2015

Men, men, men! Here in the United States, men still take center place in many areas today. Look at most sports broadcasts. What you see is—men! Look at many industries and places of work, still, today. Firefighters? Mostly men. Police officers? Mostly men. Truckers? Construction workers? Mostly men here, too.

The sermon I have for you this morning is not the typical sermon. I would like us to consider the passage from Acts 16 that was read just now. This passage is interesting because of its highlight on women. Let’s take a closer look at the subject at hand.

We are looking at Acts, chapter 16, as part of our summer sermon series, Postcards from the Early Church. The events recorded in this book take place later in the first century after the birth of Christ, a long, long time ago. The concepts of welcoming and celebrating multi-culturalism—as we do today—were not even thought of.

The apostle Paul and his friends had a bit of a culture shock themselves. They had been itinerant preachers and missionaries throughout Asia Minor for the past several years. They were on the front lines, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ on the frontier, to people who had never heard that good news before. And now, at the beginning of Acts 16, they take the huge step of crossing into Europe. They are now in Philippi, in what is now northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia. So they are truly missionaries, bridging continents, crossing cultures, coming into a new situation with their good news.

Now, there was one structure Paul and his friends had to deal with, wherever they went: the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire embraced many different cultures, from western Europe to northern Africa, to the edges of what is Iraq today. But within that polyglot of cultures, one basic aspect remained constant: the pre-eminence of men, and the subordination of women.

We can still see this fact of life in certain societies and cultures today; in certain cultures, women are still subordinate, not allowed to do things or to be involved in activities that are normal and matter of course for both women and men today, in our culture and society here in the United States.

Let’s return to the scripture passage we are examining today. Dr. Luke is different from the other biblical authors, since he was a Gentile, and a doctor. He was used to dealing with women and children as a doctor, as a matter of course, and I believe they were important to him, professionally as well as personally. Thus, he mentions them more often in his writings. Here in Acts 16, almost the first thing that Dr. Luke tells us about Paul and his friends in Philippi is their encounter with a gathering of women outside of the city.

Let me say how unusual this is, for the Bible. In either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, the mention of a gathering of women, only, is almost unheard of. The mention of a woman, on her own, at all, is unusual.

Just think about it: women in the Bible are usually mentioned in reference to a man: Abraham’s wife, Sarah; Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar; Samuel’s mother, Hannah; Mordecai’s cousin, Esther; Aquila’s wife, Priscilla; Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Some women in the Bible are not even mentioned by name: the woman at the well from John 4, the woman with the flow of blood from Luke 8, and the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman from Mark 7—anonymous women, known only to God. But wherever they appear in the Bible, the women of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament are clearly examples for anyone who reads the Bible today or has read the Bible, throughout the centuries.

Let’s look at this situation in Acts 16 from a different perspective, for a moment. Quite an odd occurrence, to be sure! Here we have a small group of men, strangers from out of town, coming and sitting down among a larger group of women. What is going on here?

I could mention the fascinating information I researched about Jewish synagogues among majority Gentile towns in the first centuries of this common era, or about the possibility that there was no synagogue in Philippi, which led the God-fearing people who wished to worship outside of the town. However, that is not where I wish to focus today. I would like to look at the rabbi Paul and his companions coming to pray and worship with this group of women. Rabbi Paul was probably the guest preacher for the morning, supported by his colleagues in ministry.

This prayer meeting was an open-air meeting outside the town, probably at a marginal location near the river. It was a meeting of God-fearing women, probably mostly Gentile in makeup. The amazing thing about this mention in Acts 16 is that Dr. Luke mentions the women.

Women are not mentioned often in the Bible, period. But without the active participation and support of women, and some of them of high standing, too, Paul and his companions would not have been able to accomplish half of what they did. Women, especially of high standing, were involved in local politics throughout the region, and economically involved, as well. Women were important to the ongoing life of the new church and to the spreading of the good news for several years before this occasion in Philippi. I believe Paul was acknowledging this through his willingness to talk with and preach for the women.

It is unusual for women to be mentioned on their own, self-sufficient, having their own accountability and standing in the city where they live. Yet here we have just that. Dr. Luke particularly mentions Lydia, and he gives us lots of personal information about her. We can tell by her name that she is a Gentile woman, and we are told she was born in a city called Thyatira, and is a dealer in purple cloth, which for that time was a luxury item, for sure. What we can compare this to is a dealer in high-end designer clothing in our culture and context, today. We can readily see that she not only owns her own business, but she also has her own house, and household servants and maybe even assistants and others in her entourage.

What did the Lord do? Here in verse 14, the passage says that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to the things Paul preached. And because of her attention to the message, she came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And as an expression of that sincere faith in the Lord, she went the next step, and was baptized, thereby making a public declaration of her realization of coming to faith. And not only Lydia, but also her whole household was baptized.

Then, after she was baptized, she offers her own house as a hotel, as a place for Paul and his companions to stay, a base of operations while they were in Philippi. She is hospitable, showing good character and a definite spiritual gift. She had been a God-fearer, a worshiper of God, and now she was a Christian, a believer in the good news.

That’s Lydia’s story. But, how about you? Lydia was a God-fearer. Lydia was a proselyte, probably coming faithfully to prayer and worship Sabbath after Sabbath. It could even have been for years, faithful in her attendance, faithful in her giving to others. But it took the Lord to open Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to the message of the good news. It took the Lord to lead Lydia to faith in the good news of Jesus Christ.

What about you? Have you come to that point in your life where you accept what Jesus Christ has done for you? Have you come to believe in that good news that Paul preached? Paul’s answer from Acts 16 still stands today. It is still valid. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

And if you are a believer in the Lord already, praise God! You can join Lydia and Dr. Luke and Paul and Silas and the rest of the saints, throughout the centuries.

And even if we do know the Lord, there may be some who have been far away from Him, and not as attentive to God’s will and God’s ways. I know I have sinned, often, and I think there may be others in the same circumstance. The Lord does not turn His back, and ignore us when we come to say we’re sorry, and we have sinned. No.

The Lord is ready to welcome us, to extend God’s mercy and grace to us. Each one of us.

Have you come to the Lord? Have you asked forgiveness for your sins, and thanked God for welcoming you to Him? See, today is the day of salvation. Let this day be the day when you open your heart to the Lord.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

 

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Cleanse Your Hearts!

“Cleanse Your Hearts!”

Acts 15 Jerusalem council stained glass

Acts 15:8-9 – August 23, 2015

Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

I hate to make sweeping statements, but I definitely think that that is one everyone can agree upon. Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

We could be talking about the rough and tumble of sibling rivalry: “Mom! He started it!” “Did not!” “Yes, you did, too!” Or, a difficulty between neighbors that might get worse and worse, and escalate out of control until someone puts up a spite fence. Or, what about a problem between two employees in the workplace? You know the sort of thing. A disagreement starts between two people. Words are exchanged. Each side is sure they are right! Next thing you know, the whole office has chosen sides, and is squared off against each other.

We have a situation very much like this, in Acts 15. The whole group of believers—in all of the congregations scattered around the Mediterranean by this point—has escalated to the point that we heard about today, during the New Testament reading.

To recap, back in Acts 2, a number of days after our Lord Jesus ascended in to heaven, the few dozen believers have a Pentecost experience! The Holy Spirit comes upon them all, and Peter preaches his remarkable sermon. Not remarkable in and of itself, but remarkable because of the incredible response he got. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to belief in the risen Lord Jesus, in just one day! These were all Jewish believers. And, they continue spreading the Good News to any Jew they encounter. Many more believe, too.

Then, in Acts 8, Philip preaches in Samaria. The Holy Spirit comes upon these half-Jews, and even more people believe in the Good News! The circle of belief and faith continues to become wider and wider. In Acts 10, Peter preaches the Gospel to a Gentile—Roman centurion named Cornelius, and his whole Gentile household. They all believe, too! And, the Holy Spirit comes upon all of them, as well. Peter and the other apostles have the witness of their own eyes. They see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34b-35)

The Holy Spirit continues to move. The believers continue to preach the Good News to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, high class or low born, or any other distinction. All are welcome to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Which brings us to the beginning of Acts chapter 15. A large number of believers has squared off, one side against the other, over keeping the Jewish laws. Should we, or shouldn’t we? What about Jewish people who never really kept kosher, before they started believing in the risen Jesus? Should they keep 600-plus rules in the Jewish law, now? And what about Gentiles who might have never had any idea about the Jewish laws, before? Should they turn themselves inside out and start keeping kosher, and wearing special clothes, and observing special holidays?

I went to one of the textbooks I had for one of my seminary classes, called Church Administration. (One of the best classes I ever had, in all my years of school!) This book is called Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior by Arthur Boers. Such helpful material on church conflict in this book!

Our situation at the beginning of Acts 15 seems black-and-white. We can see that from verse 5: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”’ We have group A (or, Aleph) on this side, yelling ‘You’ve got to keep Jewish Law!” and group B (or, Bet) on the other side yelling back, “No, we don’t!” As they continue to bicker and snarl at each other, the argument gets worse and worse!

This argument is a classic case of polarizing! “Reducing issues to ‘black-and-white’ solutions and giving little time to discovering other options.” [1] What will they do now?

Yes, the controversy has busted wide open. Sometimes, people get stuck. They either don’t or can’t move. There they are, in that big, black-and-white argument, no way out. Or, so they think.

At the church council in Jerusalem, there was some discussion. I don’t know how long the discussion went on. There may have been some name-calling, or possibly even getting into fist fights. (I don’t know for sure—this was before the days of reality television.) Adversarial comments could have happened! “using ‘we/they’ language and ignoring or dismissing what is held in common.“ As the argument escalated, I can imagine threatening ultimatums being issued, back and forth. [2]

Here’s an illustration Boers uses: “One snowy morning I drove the high school car pool. I backed my fully loaded van onto a downwardly sloped street. On the slippery pavement, the van would not budge uphill in a forward gear. I could have pushed the accelerator, spun the wheels harder and faster, and gotten nowhere. Instead, I backed partway down the hill, tried the forward gear again, discovered my wheels had found a purchase, and was able to move forward.” [3]

Similarly, we find the apostle Peter taking a step back. Just like the van in this illustration, he backs up. And, he “seeks the common good over the interests of particular parties.” [4] He tries to find some common ground that all can agree on. Peter says, “God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as God did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for God cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Did you hear? Peter makes the statement, again, that God wants to enter into a relationship with each and every person. That means, each person in his time, in the first century, just as much as today, in the twenty-first century. God does not discriminate! And, neither should we.

What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! Praise God, we don’t need to meticulously follow the Jewish Law code. We don’t have to wear special clothes, or observe special holidays, or have restricted food choices. God has cleansed each of our hearts, through faith! Peter goes on to say, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Praise God! Alleluia! We are not saved by following each and every little rule in the Jewish Law code. We are not saved by following each and every little rule in recent rulebooks, like no dancing, and no card-playing, no movies, and no mixed bathing.

It was a little early in the formation of Christianity for the apostle Paul to formulate his theological statement in the letter to the Ephesians, some years down the road. But I can hear the beginnings of it being hammered out, right here. Paul’s triumphant words from Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Praise God! Not just Jews, not just Greeks, not just people with brown hair, not just people who are right-handed. But everyone. God does not discriminate! What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! We can all say Alleluia! Amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[1] Boers, Arthur Paul, Never Call Them Jerks, (United States of America: the Alban Institute, 1999.), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 72.

To the Ends of the Earth!

To the Ends of the Earth!

Acts 13-47 go into all the world

Acts 13:47 – August 16, 2015

Every month, St. Luke’s Church has a Church Council meeting to deal with the everyday business of running the church. We are going to have our August meeting this coming Friday. This being a congregational church, any member is more than welcome at our council meetings.

Let me ask: what would you think if someone from the Church Council were to get up in front of the congregation next Sunday morning, and say something like, “This past Friday at the Council meeting, the Holy Spirit told us to send two of our church leaders—two Council members—off to the mission field full time. We prayed over them, and we sent them off. They’re gone, and we’re not really sure where they’ll end up”? What would your reaction be to such a statement?

That’s just what happened. That’s just the situation, here at the beginning of Acts chapter 13. Except, I suspect the whole congregation gathered around Paul and Barnabas, as well as several others who intended to travel with them. Dr. Luke doesn’t specifically say, but I think the whole congregation prayed over them before they sent them out.

Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Holy Spirit to go out. To tell others about the Good News of the risen Jesus. They, and several of their friends, left for parts unknown.

It’s a wonderful thing, to be noticed, recognized. Chosen as a messenger, a missionary for God. In the several churches I have attended over the years, I have seen dozens of people go on both short- and long-term mission trips, just like Paul and Barnabas. I’ve been involved with mission committees, and led prayer teams and prayer efforts in support of many of those same missionaries. However, I—myself—have never gone anywhere on a mission trip. Nope. Not even a short-term one.

How many of us, here, can say the same thing? I am not asking for anyone to raise hands or otherwise identify themselves. But, in your hearts, how many of us know that we have never gone to the mission field? Either overseas, or in this country?

Let’s define terms. What is a mission field, anyhow? What does it mean to be a missionary?

A simple definition? A mission field is somewhere on the other side of a boundary or barrier. I know seminary professors and people who study the history of missions might quibble with the specifics of this definition. However, I think most everyone would agree that a mission field involves crossing some sort of a boundary. That can be a boundary or barrier of race, nationality, language or culture. Those are the easiest to see and recognize! But a mission field can also be on the other side of an economic boundary, or a societal barrier.

Take my friends, Jim and Amy. Both trained as doctors, they both worked here in the Chicago area for a long time. But, they were mission-minded. They intentionally went to the South side of Chicago regularly, for years, to work at a Christian medical clinic. An inner city mission, right here in Chicago. They are now in sub-Saharan Africa, working as missionary doctors. Still with that mission mindset. But, it was only recently that they went to Africa.

For years, before that, they were using the training they had to work for God—as medical doctors. To communicate the Good News that God loves everyone. Here in Chicago, but in a radically different community, with a different culture. Were they missionaries then, in Chicago? Are they missionaries now, in Africa? I say, in both cases, yes!

Let’s consider our scripture passage for today. Pretty new idea, for these early believers to preach the Good News to a multi-cultural audience! Take a look at the list of prophets and teachers from the beginning of Acts chapter 13. “1-2 Now there were in the Church at Antioch both prophets and teachers—Barnabas, Simeon surnamed Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen the foster-brother of the governor Herod, and Saul.”

Just looking at this list, off the top of my head, I might not notice anything particularly different. But, let’s dig a little deeper. My research tells me that this assembly of believers in Antioch was the first truly multi-ethnic local church. This church had Jews and Gentiles together in one local congregation, according to Acts 11:19–22.

            We have Barnabas, a Jewish man, a Levite from the priestly class, born in Cyprus. Next, Simeon—he’s also called Niger. That’s a black man, from Africa. Then, Lucius, the North African from a large town called Cyrene. Then, there is the upper-class Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod—raised in the palace of the ruler Herod Antipas. And finally, we have Saul (or Paul), one of the most pre-eminent Pharisees of his day, born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, and educated in the equivalent of an Ivy League school.

            We have some heavy hitters. Men of spiritual substance, described by Dr. Luke as both prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch. And, they are VIP’s. Very Important People, from many different regions and cultural backgrounds! It was these church leaders—the Church Council of the church in Antioch—who commissioned Paul and Barnabas and their friends. These missionaries left a multi-cultural local congregation to go to the multi-cultural world.

            As we read further in the chapter, Paul, Barnabas and their friends traveled further. “13-15  They continued their journey through Perga to [another] town called Antioch. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and took their seats. After the reading of the Law and Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent to them with a message, “Men and brothers, if you have any message of encouragement for the people, by all means speak.”

We can see Paul goes first to the congregation at a synagogue. Dressed as a Pharisee (because they did wear distinctive clothing), the synagogue leaders knew he was learned in the Law and the Prophets. Paul gets up to speak. He gives them the Gospel, in a way they could understand.

Using the Hebrew Scriptures, he spoke about the coming Messiah, and about the death and resurrection of the risen Jesus. He spoke in a clear way that Jewish people could easily relate to. And, many of them came to faith in the risen Jesus, the Messiah.

However, Paul did not stop there! He spoke of the risen Jesus to God-fearing people who were not Jewish! He spoke of the resurrection to Gentiles, to Romans, to people without regard of their ethnic origin, or of the color of their skin.

Listen as chapter 13 continues: “44-47 On the next Sabbath almost the entire population of the city assembled to hear the message of God, but when the Jews saw the crowds they were filled with jealousy and contradicted what Paul was saying, covering him with abuse. At this Paul and Barnabas did not mince their words but said, “We felt it our duty to speak the message of God to you first, but since you spurn it and evidently do not think yourselves fit for eternal life, watch us now as we turn to the Gentiles! Indeed the Lord has commanded us to do so with the words: ‘I have set you to be a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

“48-50 When the Gentiles heard this they were delighted and thanked God for God’s message. All those who were destined for eternal life believed, and the Word of the Lord spread over the whole country.”

Did you hear? The Gentiles were delighted when they heard that they were welcomed by God, too! The Gentiles were—are as much God’s beloved children as are the Jews. All people are welcome to be saved. Salvation is for anyone, to the ends of the earth!

            What about the rest of the church, where Paul and Barnabas came from? Were they just sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs, or hiding their heads in the sand like ostriches?

I think the other believers in the church at Antioch had an important job to do, too. True, they may not have been sent out, called by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries. To go far away, like Paul and Barnabas, to suffer hardship and travel and preach the Good News in a different town every few weeks. However, God called these believers who stayed in Antioch to follow God, too. The Lord wanted each of them to share their story to the people around them, to share the Good News of the risen Jesus, too.

And, what about us, today? Do we have to be sent out as missionaries to Africa, like my friends, Jim and Amy? Or, can we share our stories, here? Can we show others the Good News of the risen Jesus? Tell them what Jesus has done for us, lately? Or, show them God’s love? Or what God has done in the lives of people we know?

What can you say about what God has done for you, or for a loved one? People almost always listen to stories. So, tell a true story. Tell how God has worked in your life.

How can you share about God, today?

I’d like for everyone to think of one person you might talk to. And, think of something that God has done in your life. And, prayerfully, go and tell! Here in multi-cultural Morton Grove—and Niles, and Des Plaines, and Skokie, and Chicago—most people we meet are from different ethnic groups or various cultural backgrounds. Just like the church in Antioch, the first truly multi-ethnic local church. So, go forth! Go and tell! That’s our challenge today.

Alleluia, amen!

 

(The scripture readings of Acts 13 were taken from the excellent translation by J.B.Phillips; ; J. B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”, 1962 edition by HarperCollins.”  And, thanks to the wonderful people who prepared the bible studies on Acts at http://www.intervarsity.org/bible-studies – The study on Acts 13 was quite helpful, and gave me some great jumping-off places from which to preach!)

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Jesus is Lord of All!

Jesus is Lord of All!

Acts 10 Peter's Vision bas relief

Acts 10:45 – August 9, 2015

Here in the church, we sometimes talk about missionaries going to far-flung places in distant parts of the earth. They navigate visible and invisible borders and boundaries. But not me! I’ve always lived here in the Chicago area. One big similarity? I served in three multi-cultural hospitals. For almost ten years, in several hospitals and extended care centers around Chicago, I worked as a chaplain. I dealt with patients, their loved ones, and health care staff—on a regular basis. Instead of going to the world, I had the world come to me, in the hospital.

What in the world does this have to do with our sermon today? I’ll tell you, in a story-telling kind of way. We start off in Caesarea, a Roman city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman capital of the Roman province of Judaea. Thoroughly Roman in every way, from its pagan temples, amphitheater and other architecture to the brand new deep harbor, thanks to superior Roman engineering skills.

Here we meet Cornelius, a Roman centurion, in charge of one hundred soldiers. (He’s a Gentile, by the way.) Let me tell you what Dr. Luke has to say in Acts chapter 10. I’m reading again from the excellent version translated by J.B. Phillips. “1-3 There was a man in Caesarea by the name of Cornelius, a centurion in what was called the Italian Regiment. He was a deeply religious man who reverenced God, as did all his household. He made many charitable gifts to the people and was a real man of prayer.”

Did you all catch that? Cornelius reverenced/revered God! The God who made heaven and earth. The God of the Jews. But, he was a . . . Gentile! Not a drop of Jewish blood in him.

What happens next? “About three o’clock one afternoon he saw perfectly clearly in a dream an angel of God coming into his room, saying, “Cornelius!” 4a He stared at the angel in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” 4b-6 The angel replied, “Your prayers and your deeds of charity have gone up to Heaven and are remembered before God. Now send men to Joppa for a man called Simon, who is also known as Peter.”

The town of Joppa was not just a mile or two down the road. No, the soldier Cornelius needed to send his servants between thirty and forty miles away in order to fetch this Simon Peter guy. Which, Cornelius did, right then and there.

Meanwhile, in Joppa—I imagine a split-screen sort of a deal here. On this side, here is the city of Caesarea. A large, Roman-style house. The camera zooms in on the centurion Cornelius, just having dispatched his men to go fetch Peter. And—on the other side of the screen, we have the camera: starting out in a long shot. We see the street scene on an afternoon in Joppa. The camera pans in, coming closer and closer to a particular building. A smaller house. Simon Peter is sitting up on the flat roof, catching some breeze off the ocean in that coastal town.

Dr. Luke continues: “9-13 Next day, while these men were still on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up about mid-day on to the flat roof of the house to pray. He became very hungry and longed for something to eat. But while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance and saw the heavens open and something like a great sheet descending upon the earth, let down by its four corners. In it were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds. Then came a voice which said to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” “

In the Mosaic Law, recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Law code has definite restrictions on what any good, kosher-keeping Jew is and is not allowed to eat. A few well-known forbidden foods are no pigs—no pork. No shrimp or other shellfish. Also, no rabbits or snakes, and no owls or birds of prey. These are just a few of the kinds of animals, fish and birds that are forbidden, for various reasons. So, let’s see what happens next!

14 Peter said, “Never, Lord! For not once in my life have I ever eaten anything common or unclean.” 15 Then the voice spoke to him a second time, “You must not call what God has cleansed common.” 16 This happened three times, and then the thing was gone, taken back into heaven.”

Wow! Amazing vision that Peter had! Talk about totally blowing Peter away. Peter had always—all of his life—kept kosher. Eaten only the things that the Mosaic Law code said he could eat. Now, out of a clear blue sky, this vision is telling him that God calls all things clean!

I want to take a little detour. Tell you a bit about my two chaplain internships, after graduating seminary. I dug right into learning about various faith traditions. I learned about widely different cultural traditions, too. This was a natural progression for me, learning more of how to accompany diverse people in crisis, critical care, trauma and end of life. It sounds rather odd, talking about my years of intensive learning and stressful internship in this way, but I very much appreciated every intense, multicultural experience I had: both in the classroom, as well as on the floors and units of the hospitals and care centers.

Let’s come back to Acts, chapter 10. “17-20 While Peter was still puzzling about the meaning of the vision which he had just seen, the men sent by Cornelius had arrived asking for the house of Simon. They were standing at the very doorway of the house calling out to enquire if Simon, surnamed Peter, were lodging there. Peter was still thinking deeply about the vision when the Spirit said to him, “Three men are here looking for you. Get up and go downstairs. Go with them without any misgivings, for I myself have sent them.”

“23b-26 On the next day Peter got up and set out with them, accompanied by some of the believers from Joppa, arriving at Caesarea on the day after that. Cornelius was expecting them and had invited together all his relations and intimate friends. As Peter entered the house Cornelius met him by falling on his knees before him and worshiping him. But Peter roused him with the words, “Stand up, I am a human being too!”

I need to interrupt, to let you know—Peter and his Jewish friends from Joppa, being good observant Jews, were forbidden by the Jewish Law code to enter the house of a Gentile. Yet—that is exactly what Peter intended to do! Let’s continue.

27-29 Then Peter went right into the house in deep conversation with Cornelius and found that a large number of people had assembled. Then he spoke to them, “You all know that it is forbidden for a man who is a Jew to associate with, or even visit, a man of another nation. But God has shown me plainly that no man must be called ‘common’ or ‘unclean’. That is why I came here when I was sent for without raising any objection.”

As for me? All three of the hospitals where I served were in the middle of multicultural areas, a crossroad of the multicultural communities of Chicago and the surrounding area. One of these hospitals has the distinction of sitting in one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country. (The U.S. Census Bureau says so.) I never knew who was going to be in that next room I entered, or what situation I was going to encounter next.

34-43 Then Peter began to speak, “In solemn truth I can see now that God is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation the one who reverences Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him! God has sent His message to the children of Israel by giving us the good news of peace through Jesus Christ—He is the Lord of us all.” Ahh. We can see that slowly, very slowly, Peter is taking baby steps towards being open to more than just Jews.

When I served as a chaplain, I didn’t just serve Protestant Christians. I remember a Buddhist Asian family in critical care, as their loved one died just as I came in—complete silence and intense sadness greeted me as I joined them in the room. Another time, I entered the packed ICU cubicle—wall to wall with a Pentecostal Latino family, who wanted me to pray their brother (and uncle) across the River Jordan. (The crashing, palpable waves of grief struck me again and again…I vividly remember.) It wasn’t all end of life. I remember being asked to pray the Rosary with a Filipino family around their ill auntie, lying in the hospital bed. There was the situation with an older Muslim patient, and the 20-something relative wearing black hijab and very conservative dress, sitting next to the bed; she earnestly asked me to pray. Of course I did!

In fact, Peter goes on to say: “We are those witnesses, we who ate and drank with Him after he had risen from the dead! Moreover, we are the people whom He commanded to preach and bear fearless witness to the fact that He is the one appointed by God to be the judge of both the living and the dead.”

This sermon Peter preached—for it was a sermon!—had its effect. The Gentile audience heard Peter, and what happened? “44-46a While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to his message. The Jewish believers who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was being poured out on Gentiles also; for they heard them speaking in foreign tongues and glorifying God.”

Did you hear what happened? Praise God! These Gentiles believed, and the same thing happened to them that had happened to the Jewish believers in Acts chapter 2! The gift of the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, too.

Remember what Peter told his Jewish audience, at Pentecost? Acts chapter 2? Joel’s prophecy regarding the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had been fulfilled. All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32a). At first, Peter and the rest of Jesus’ followers thought that all only meant Jews. And then, Samaritans were added.

I have Good News for you. I have Good News for us all. Jesus is the Lord of all (10:36b). All Jews and all Gentiles who believe in Him receive forgiveness of sins through His name (10:43). As the commentator Richard Carlson said, the Apostle Paul had it exactly right, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). In Christ, there is neither Republican nor Democrat, citizen nor undocumented visitor, gay nor straight, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

In God’s salvation plan, all now really means all.

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Who Are You, Lord?

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-19 – August 2, 2015

Sometimes, asking good questions can be difficult.

In the 1400’s and 1500’s, the astronomers in Europe were discovering wonderful things about our solar system. It wasn’t until 1543 that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus asked, “Could it be that the Earth orbits the Sun?” This was a dangerous question to ask, in his time. Common knowledge and expert opinion were in agreement, in the 1500’s: the Earth was the center of everything. But Copernicus had the courage to ask this simple—and profound—question, which turned the scientific community on its heads, and changed the world.

We turn to our Scripture passage for today. Acts chapter 9. Saul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, was one of the chief persecutors of the early Church in the area of Jerusalem. He had been a witness to the stoning of Stephen, a short time before this reading today. Saul’s zeal in pursuing these “Jewish heretics,” these followers of “The Way” had become legendary. Let me read the Acts passage from an excellent translation by J.B. Phillips.

“1-2 But Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and begged him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he should find there any followers of the Way, whether men or women, he could bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.”

That was the situation. Saul was filled with religious zeal! It wasn’t enough that he had been instrumental in kicking out most of the believers and breaking up the Jerusalem church. He was going to round up these Jewish heretics in Damascus, more than one hundred miles away. Nab these false believers! And, extradite them. Bring them back to face the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

Who was Saul, anyway? Born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, he was one of the graduates of the equivalent of an Ivy League school—the University of Tarsus, one of the finest universities of the first century. He had been a student of the Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of that day. As far as knowledge and book learning was concerned? Saul had it, in abundance! He was trained as a Pharisee, in every aspect of the Jewish religion. And, he was on fire to haul in every upstart Jewish heretic he could lay his hands on!

Just like the scientific establishment in the 1500’s in Europe, Saul had his mind set, for once and for all. He knew he was right, and nothing could make him swerve from his desire, his zeal to see justice done. Let’s go back to our reading from Acts. “3-4 But on his journey, as Saul neared Damascus, a light from Heaven suddenly blazed around him, and he fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?””

Whoa! Wait a minute, here! Saul is one of the top religious law-followers in Jerusalem. As he said himself, a Pharisee of the Pharisees! But, BAM! Here is a clear, Heavenly event happening to Saul. You might have heard about “a Damascus road experience,” meaning a sudden, dramatic conversion experience? This is it. Right here, right now. Paul’s—I mean, Saul’s dramatic conversion experience.

Time after time in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets have encounters with the living God. We can see from descriptions in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, just to name several. And the most significant—that of Moses, in Exodus, at the burning bush. Just as God called Moses twice: “Moses, Moses!” So the risen Lord Jesus also calls twice: “Saul, Saul!”

I have a suspicion that Saul immediately “got it.” The mental puzzle pieces started falling into place. Saul finally asked a really good question: “Who are you, Lord?

Isn’t that the way it is with you or with me, sometimes? Here we are, headed down Life Road, going about our business. When, boom! A sudden event happens. Maybe not as serious as Paul’s Damascus Road encounter, but all the same, earth-shaking. It could be something that happens to our health, or our jobs, an accident or some type of traumatic or sudden happening. Or, if it doesn’t happen to us, it happens to one of our loved ones. Our best friend. Or a next door neighbor.

Even if it’s something really fantastic, it can still be earth-shaking. Just as much of a shift or a change in life. Similar to the dramatic shift in the scientific world after Copernicus proved that the Earth really did orbit the Sun. He turned the whole world’s attitudes and ideas on their heads and paved the way for a whole new way of thinking. New frames for good questions.

As Saul was lying there in the dust of the road, I am sure a few new thoughts broke into his mind. “Who are you, Lord?” As one commentary says, Saul’s really good question was that “of a devout Jew who understands the significance of his experience from reading Scripture.”

Let’s continue with our reading: “6-7 “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” was the reply. “But now stand up and go into the city and there you will be told what you must do.”

His companions on the journey stood there speechless, for they had heard the voice but could see no one.”

Do you understand what’s going on here? The others in this vigilante posse can hear a voice, but have no idea Who is speaking. On top of that, Saul is suddenly struck blind. The companions don’t have a clue what is going on. They need to lead Saul by the hand into Damascus, blind and helpless. There he sits, and fasts, for three whole days.

I need to finish the narrative. It doesn’t end here! Not by a long shot!

10 Now in Damascus there was a disciple by the name of Ananias. The Lord spoke to this man in a dream. calling him by his name. “I am here, Lord,” he replied. 11-12 Then the Lord said to him, “Get up and go down to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man named Saul from Tarsus. At this moment he is praying and he sees in his mind’s eye a man by the name of Ananias coming into the house, and placing his hands upon him to restore his sight.” 13-14 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard on all hands about this man and how much harm he has done to Your holy people in Jerusalem! Why even now he holds papers from the chief priests to arrest all who call upon Your name.” 15-16 But the Lord said to him, “Go on your way, for this man is My chosen instrument to bear My name before the Gentiles and their kings, as well as to the sons of Israel. Indeed, I Myself will show him what he must suffer for the sake of My name.”

17 Then Ananias set out and went to the house, and there he laid his hands upon Saul, and said, “Saul, brother, the Lord has sent me—Jesus who appeared to you on your journey here—so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18-19a Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got to his feet and was baptised. Then he took some food and regained his strength.”

We see how a persecutor of Christians became the foremost preacher of Christ. By asking a really good question.

John Holbert mentions in his study on Acts 9, “Luke seals his portrait of the great apostle by reminding us that God is forever in the business of choosing the least likely of persons to do the great work of God.” Remember God’s “chosen instrument” mentioned in Acts 9:15? Paul refers to himself again as a cracked pot (in Greek, skeuos) for Jesus, in 2 Corinthians 4:7. We are all flawed, cracked pots. Each of us is a chosen instrument for God, yes! And a less-than-perfect cracked pot, too.

Do I have the amazing gifts of planning, leadership and public speaking that the Apostle Paul had? Not likely. However, I do what I can with what God has given me. You can, too! God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. We are all flawed vessels—less-than-perfect cracked pots for Jesus.

Saul—shortly to become the Apostle Paul—was called by God to go to the Gentiles. To go to the nations, and not to just preach to Jews. I wonder. The Lord has called each one of us. God has welcomed each of us into a heavenly relationship. I wonder. The nations are coming to us—to Morton Grove, to Glenview, to Niles, to Des Plaines, and all over the Chicago area. Is God calling us to be God’s chosen instruments to our neighbors? To those we work with? To the person at the coffee shop or the clerk at the grocery store?

I offer you—I offer all of us the opportunity to hear God’s call! Chances are, it won’t be as dramatic as Saul’s conversion. But can you hear God’s call with gladness? God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. Paul’s conversion narrative fires the imagination! May we find in its depths a call on every single one of us, for change and new possibility.

Alleluia! Amen.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!