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05-19 - Becoming an Encourager

          “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” William Shakespeare used this line in his play Romeo and Juliet to convey that the naming of things is irrelevant.  Perhaps names are irrelevant since Shakespeare’s time, but that was not always true.  In the ancient near east, for example, names mattered.  The meaning behind someone’s name mattered.  And the names people were known by mattered most when someone’s name was changed during their life.  For example, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude.” Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, meaning “he strives with God.”  And, of course, Simon, son of Jonah, had his name changed by Jesus to Peter, meaning “rock.” Changing someone’s name during one’s life was intended to reflect a profound truth about the nature of that person. 

So, ask yourself this question, “If your name was changed to match a profound truth about you, what might that truth be?  What character trait do you think most defines you?” If you were using a contemporary guide to the meaning of names, and you are wise, then would you change your name to Sophie or Drew, both mean the person is wise.  If you are a leader, would you change your name to Duke or Deanna? If you are a healer, would you change your name to Jaylen or Jason?

          Today, as we continue our exploration of the life of a man named Saul, we will see that Saul met a man whose name was changed and that change was most profound. At birth, this man’s name was Joseph. Later in life, after the man became a Christian, Jesus’ Apostles changed Joseph’s name to reflect the fundamental truth about this man, and they gave him the name, Barnabas.  We pronounce and spell his name as a single word, Barnabas. But in the ancient near east, the word “bar” meant “son of.”  So, Barnabas was more likely accentuated, bar Nabas, “son of Nabas.”  Depending upon the Bible translation, Nabas means encouragement, comfort, and consolation.  Joseph most profound character trait then was to be seen as the “son of the encourager, the comforter, and the consoler.”  The word Luke used that was translated as encourager is the Greek word, paraklesis, which describes the act of calling people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  Joseph was seen as the son of the one who does this drawing of people and provider of comfort.  In many respects, Joseph, bar Nabas, was behaving as the offspring of the Holy Spirit, parakletos, meaning the divine intercessor, consoler-advocate, and comforter.  This description of Joseph seems to fit a description of him found in Acts 11:24 where Barnabas is described as “24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith”.  What’s in a name?  A name means a lot if it is given to you as a sign of your relationship with God and how that relationship is lived out.

          And so, with that background about bar Nabas, we pick of the story of Saul.  We will recall from the last couple of weeks that Saul had been a Jewish Pharisee, a deeply religious man who trained under one of the greatest rabbis in Israel’s history.  But Saul lost his way and instead of using his intellect, Saul began, in Jerusalem, breathing out murderous threats seeking to destroy anyone who dared to follow Jesus.  After persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, Saul began pursing Christians into the city of Damascus.  On the way, Saul had an encounter with Jesus that transformed Saul from breathing out murderous threats against Christians to preaching God’s Word seeking Jews and Gentiles to come and accept Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah.  Last week, we saw that Saul began his ministry in Damascus, moved to Arabia, then back to Damascus.  For nearly 3 years, Saul suffered at the hands of the Jews.  He was whipped, receiving 39 lashes on three different occasions.  He was beaten with rods on two occasions.  He was imprisoned and was without food, water, and clothing.  And for all the physical abuse Saul experienced, he made few, if any, disciples to Christ.  Then Saul escaped those seeking his death who had surrounded the gates of the city /of Damascus, all the while awaiting to seize Saul.  Saul escaped their clutches and finally made his way back to Jerusalem, where Saul had grown up, became a man, and was educated in the Hebrew Scriptures.

          As comforting as it might be for Saul to return to Jerusalem, Saul knew he would not be welcomed back to Jerusalem by the high priests and Pharisees.  Saul would be seen by them as a traitor, someone to be scorned and held in contempt.  In returning to Jerusalem, Saul would seek to join with the other apostles and disciples of Jesus.  But Luke tells us, “26 When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he [Saul] tried to join the disciples, but they [the disciples] were all afraid of him [Saul], not believing that he [Saul] really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).  Let’s not go by this point too quickly.  Saul, this apostle of Jesus, whipped and beaten in his ministry in Arabia, threatened with death in Damascus, an outcast to the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, now stood alone because he was also shunned by Jesus disciples in Jerusalem. Alone.  Aloneness hurts.  Aloneness, loneliness hurts us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Loneliness hurts.  Loneliness hurts us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  American musician and songwriter, JJ Heller, in her song, “What Love Really Means,” described loneliness this way: “He cries in the corner where nobody sees.  He’s the kid with the story no one would believe. He prays every night, ‘Dear God, won't you please?  Could you send someone here who will love me?’”  The relief of loneliness requires the cooperation of only one other person.

          At this very moment of Saul’s crisis of loneliness, Luke said, “27 But Barnabas took him [Saul]” (Acts 9:27a).  I love this very short piece of Scripture.  First because it begins with the word “But” and I encourage everyone to sit up and take notice whenever but is used in the Bible because it usually means God is going to set things straight.  Second, I love it because it says, “But Barnabas took Saul.”  Bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, consoler, comforter, the man seen to be full of the Holy Spirit, broke into Saul’s loneliness and listened to Saul’s story.  The prayer of JJ Heller’s song, “Dear God, won't you please? Could you send someone here who will love me?”  To break into the loneliness of another, to have someone say, “I am here, please tell me,” is an act of love.  And so, bar Nabas listened to Saul.  We need to draw into our life as Christians that we possess the same Holy Spirit as bar Nabas.  With that same Holy Spirit, we too could and should love someone and break into their loneliness.

          But more than simply listening to Saul, bar Nabas did one other important thing.  Bar Nabas believed Saul’s story.  An encounter that breaks into the loneliness of another is one thing but to be believed shatters the walls of silence that others have constructed around you.  Luke wrote, “27 But Barnabas took him [Saul] and brought him to the apostles. He [Barnabas] told them [apostles] how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him [Saul], and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). Bar Nabas broke into Saul’s loneliness, shattered the wall of silence surrounding Saul, and then advocated for Saul with the apostles.  Bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, asked the apostles to believe Saul and to see in Saul’s story the blessing God was bestowing.  Bar Nabas put his reputation and standing with the disciples on the line. To Saul, bar Nabas was such an encourager because bar Nabas listened, believed, and then risked his standing in his own community to advocate for Saul.  Bar Nabas provided for us an example of the Christian response to the outcast.

          What was the result?  “28 So Saul stayed with them [the disciples] and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28).  Saul was now part of the Church that was moving and growing in and around Jerusalem. Saul would later describe this unity of the church this way, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…24b God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:3, 14a, 24b-27).  Bar Nabas, with the Holy Spirit working through him, had broken into the loneliness of Saul, and acted by calling people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  Bar Nabas helped to make Saul forever a part of the living body of Christ. 

          I think being accepted and part of the body is something every human being desires. The Greeks called this bringing together into unity, Koinonia, a fellowship of the close association between persons, emphasizing what is common between them and by extension, participating, sharing, contributing, and gifting in one another as an outcome of such close relationship.  We all want to be part of the life that is going on around us and to contribute to it.

Again, later, Saul would write to the church in Corinth, the body of Christ in Corinth, “I always thank my God for you [the followers of Jesus in Corinth] because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He [God] will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship [koinonia] with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).  Saul took this concept of unity of the body of Christ among believers and made it clear that such unity first comes from fellowship, koinonia, with Jesus.  Jesus calls believers to be inseparable part of himself.  A believer is to be in fellowship with both Jesus, for all eternity, and in fellowship with other believers through the Church with a bond so tight as to make one feel as though they are part of a body.  This is what Saul experienced in Jerusalem through the work of bar Nabas, the son of encouragement.

 We all then have a child-parent relationship with God and we have been gifted with the same Holy Spirit.  Saul would later say that “To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the same Spirit gives a message of knowledge. To others the same Spirit gives faith. To others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. 10 To others he gives the power to do miracles. To others he gives the ability to prophesy. To others he gives the ability to tell the spirits apart. To others he gives the ability to speak in different kinds of languages they had not known before. And to still others he gives the ability to explain what was said in those languages. 11 All the gifts are produced by one and the same Spirit. He gives gifts to each person, just as he decides” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).  Every believer here has been gifted in some way.

But.  But if bar Nabas’ name is to mean anything as the “son of the encourager” then it must be true that each believer is also the daughter or son of the encourager, the Holy Spirit as well.  If that is true, then each believer has been equipped to call people closer together, onto closer intimacy and stronger comfort.  There is no law, there is nothing that stands in our way, from becoming an encourager of another.  We need to break into other’s loneliness.  We need to listen to others, particularly the outcast.   We need to believe and then be willing to advocate for those who need a voice and to bring them fully into the body of Christ. Let’s all be called bar Nabas. Amen and Amen. 

05-12 Don't Quit

                    This Mother’s Day, it is natural for me to think about my mother. She lived a simple life with traditional New England ethics.  She did not show her emotions in public.  She completed her work before she played.  And she never gave up and she never quit.  I would like us to pick up today on that last thought about quitting.

          To quit, what does it mean to quit and what is the significance of quitting to our faith life?  The English word, quit, came into use long ago in the Middle Ages and it was originally meant to convey a decision “to release.”  People began using the term in context of releasing their rights to property, to land.  The idea of releasing one’s rights to property, to quit, eventually came also to mean a person was giving up their participation in some part of life.  One could quit a game, a job or even in a matter one’s faith to quit Church or even quit God.  “I quit!  I give up!”

          To quit something of faith is always a serious matter. Some years ago, I was aware of a church where people became dissatisfied with the way things were going.  One by one people from the church said, “I quit!” And they ended their relationship with the church with lengthy letters that listed complaints about this and that. Several people who quit moved to another church but just as many people, if not more people, quit going to church altogether.  This latter group quit, they gave up their opportunity to hear God’s word, to worship God, to fellowship with other Christians, to be encouraged in their faith and to be a source of encouragement to others, and to serve others in the name of Christ.  It is always a life-changing decision to quit in a matter of faith.  Today, I would like us to look at the life of a man named Saul and his decision not to quit, not to give up even when it would have been understandable to do so.  Saul’s decision to continue, to not quit, had significant implications for his life and for our lives as well.

          We spoke last week that Saul had been a Pharisee in Jerusalem turned prosecuting attorney against Christian.  Saul was breathing out murderous threats against Christians.  Saul, on his way to Damascus, to arrest more Christians had an encounter with the Lord Jesus and, in a matter of days, was transformed from breathing out murderous threats against Christians to breathing out God’s word to encourage more people to become Christians.  Saul became a very powerful preacher proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God.  From our Scripture reading today, we would hear these words from Luke: 

22 Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

23 After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him” (Acts 9:22-23a).

What Luke does not tell us is that those words, “After many days had gone by” equal a time span of about 3 years.  Shortly after Saul had started preaching more and more powerfully in Damascus, Saul left the city of Damascus to go elsewhere.  So, in the space between the end of verse 22 and the beginning of verse 23 is a time span of 3 years.  Where was Saul?  What was he doing?  Had Saul quit just as he had started his work in the name of Jesus?

          Not hardly.  Saul, later known as Paul, said in a much letter to the Galatians written years after he left Damascus that he, Saul, left Damascus and went “into Arabia” (Galatians 1:17).  Arabia?  What did Saul mean by Arabia?  Did he mean the modern-day countries of Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Iraq, perhaps, or Kuwait. It is possible Saul went to these regions, but not likely.  In Saul’s days, Arabia was most usually referred to as the lands to the south and east of Jerusalem, where the Nabateans lived with their capital city of Petra, largely in the lands of modern-day Jordan.  The Nabateans were independent people with their own monarchy and not under the governance of the Romans Empire.

It is likely that this is the region, Nabatean, that Saul went to after Damascus.  Why did he go?  Some have suggested that Paul went there for quiet reflection and study of the Scriptures to prepare himself for ministry.  That does not seem likely since Saul had years of training in the Scriptures as well as a special revelation from Jesus.  Luke said that immediately after that revelation, Saul began in Damascus preaching and teaching that Jesus was the Son of God and God’s Messiah in powerful and astonishing ways.  Saul was already involved in proclaiming the good news of Jesus, he would not likely want to go and contemplate life in the desert for years. Instead, it seems much more likely Saul went to the Nabateans (Arabia) to proclaim the word of God, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

What is interesting to note, however, is that there are no accounts of Saul’s ministry in Arabia.  There are no letters of Saul to the churches that he established. There are no stories of his time in Arabia and the work completed among the people of Arabia.  It does not appear that Saul could point to much accomplished in those 3 years of Arabia.  What happened?  Was God listening to Saul’s prayers?

Although there are no letters to Arabian churches and no accounts of the Arabian ministry in the Book of Acts, we might have is some understanding of what happened to Saul while in Arabia.  In a letter to the church at Corinth many years later, Saul now Paul said this, “23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).  Saul certainly had experienced a lot of hardship and brutal treatment in his time as an apostle of Jesus.  These abuses were also chronicled by Luke in the Book of Acts.  But when we compare the extensive list of hardships Saul gave in 2 Corinthians to those hardships found in the Book of Acts, we would realize that many of Saul’s hardships listed in 2 Corinthians are not found in the Book of Acts. This suggests that the hardships not in the Book of Acts came before Saul’s involvement with the other apostles of Jesus, meaning these things, these hardships happened in Arabia.

It seems likely that while in Arabia, Saul was scourged, lashed with a whip, five times, beaten two times with rods, and imprisoned.  Yet for all that misery, there were no churches established by Saul in Arabia.  Saul endured mistreatment in Arabia and Saul saw little, if any, fruit for his efforts.  One might wonder, did Saul say, “Where are you God? Do you not see me?  Do you not care?”  Yet, despite the physical suffering and the immediate lack of accomplishment, Saul did not quit.  Saul did not give up in his desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Not only did Saul experience severe hardship, but Saul the first to persecute the Christians, was became the target of the Jews desiring to kill him.  We then read in from the Book of Acts, “23 After many days had gone by (that is Saul’s time in Arabia), there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him [Saul], 24 but Saul learned of their plan” (Acts 9:23).  Saul, in Arabia, was about to be killed and so Saul returned to Damascus. Saul was being pursued out of Arabia by Jews who wanted Saul’s death.  “Day and night they [the Jews from Arabia] kept close watch on the city gates [of Damascus] in order to kill him [Saul]” (Acts 9:24).  Saul’s pursuers wanted Saul but did not feel so emboldened as to enter the city to find him.  Instead, those seeking Saul waited at the gates to the city making sure Saul could not escape their grasp.  But! There is always a but.  “25 But his [Saul’s] followers took him [Saul] by night and lowered him [Saul] in a basket through an opening in the wall” (Acts 9:25).  Saul did not quit.  Instead, other Christians, likely former Jews, lowered Saul in a basket through a window in the city walls allowing Saul to leave the city without using one of its gates.  Saul was safe and it was then he made his way to Jerusalem.  We will pick up Saul’s journey to Jerusalem next week.  But one of the things we will discover is that Saul was not welcome in Jerusalem and had to flee again for his life.  Yet, Saul did not quit.

What we have seen then was that Saul was a man who originally sought to kill and imprison Christians changed by an encounter with Jesus to then preach the gospel of Jesus and in doing so became a man beaten with rods, scourged, whipped, and now threatened with death.  There does not appear to be any success in Saul’s efforts and yet, Saul did not quit. Instead, this Saul would continue to serve the Lord and preach to other people seeking to have them share in the good news of Jesus Christ.  Saul did not quit.

How does Saul’s decision not to quit help inform us about our faith walk?  What might we learn from Saul when our faith journey becomes difficult, painful, or fruitless?  Let’s look at two things.

First, Saul, now Paul, in expressing his decision not to quit, would later write to the early Christian church powerful words of faith and endurance.  Saul wrote:  Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:1, 8-10).  Saul said first we do not lose heart because we base our life on the reality of God’s mercy that has saved us from eternal destruction. We need to say that to ourselves more often, “I am saved.  Wow. Thank you, God.”  Second, we acknowledge to other Christians the reality that sometimes our life can become difficult and painful.  So, we share with one another, “I am hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, and feeling abandoned.”  That can be our reality and we should share it with other Christians. The world, our non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and even our non-Christian family members really won’t care about our difficulties.  But our Christian brothers and sisters ought to and will care.  Because when, as our opening song said, “Let’s be real, let’s be honest.  I’m angry, I’m tired. I have that down on my knees feeling.  Take this cup from me.”  When we can share the depth of those hardships, our burden with other Christians, we are no longer carrying them on our own.  In fellowship and with encouragement from other Christians we are reminded that despite our hardships and brutal treatment, we are not crushed, in despair, or destroyed.  However, if we quit, if we give up on God, on church, then we lose the opportunity for Christian fellowship, encouragement, support, service, and worship of God. All of which sets us up to be crushed, in despair, and destroyed.

Second, Saul, in expressing his decision not to quit, learned that, “1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-3).  First, Saul learned that faith and belief in Jesus as his savior brought him peace with God.  Peace with God.  Think about the power in those words for a moment, Peace with God.  That sense of calmness and wholeness had eluded Saul and led him to persecute the church in believing somehow that violence done in the name of God would bring him peace with God.  Thrashing out at others did not bring Saul peace and it never would. Likewise, quitting a relationship with God would never bring peace.  We must be in a relationship with God if we want peace.  Saul, knowing that he was at peace with God and God was at peace with him, helped Saul to see those hardships of life, the beatings, the whippings, hunger, thirst, and imprisonment were not from God.  Those hardships of life were acts that came from a world and people in that world that were not at peace with God.  Saul could deal with the hardships of life “14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).  Saul could do so because Saul knew that hardship and pain are not given to him by God. God gives us peace.  Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  Saul did not quit because Saul knew peace comes from God.

As the refrain of the open song said, “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, quit.”  Stay with God.  Stay with the body of Christ, his Church.  Don’t quit having the opportunity to hear God’s word, to worship God, to fellowship with other Christians, to be encouraged in your faith, to be a source of encouragement to others, and to serve others in the name of Christ. 


05-05 - Bringing Order and Light

          A poet once wrote these words about contemporary society, “If Chance [Randomness] is the Father of all flesh, then disaster is his rainbow in the sky, and when you hear, ‘State of Emergency,’ ‘Sniper Kills Ten!’ ‘Troops on Rampage.’ ‘Youth Go Looting,’ Bomb Blast School!’ It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”

          “If Chance [and not God] is the Father of all flesh, then disaster is his rainbow in the sky.”  The poet’s words are a somber start to the message today, but they are necessary words.  These words are necessary because they help us to put into context all that has gone on this past week and to prepare us to understand the message of hope offered in our Scripture today.

          This past week we saw headlines of eight officers shot in North Carolina, four dead, students protest in support of terrorists, barricade themselves in building, wars rage, thousands are dead, the list goes on. Is there something common to all these events?  Yes. Those involved are simply worshipping their maker, who is not God.  All these events are born by people whose mind and spirit are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.

          Even those who did not participate in headline making news this past week but who were unfaithful in their marriage, abusive of their children, angry and hateful toward others, or simply leading others down the wrong path of life were worshipping their maker, who is certainly not God.  Those involved in these events outside of the headlines did so because they too have a mind and spirit that are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.

          This is the same mind and spirit that we find in the man of our New Testament reading today.  A man named Saul.  Who was this man, Saul?

          Saul was born in approximately AD 5, about the same time as Jesus, in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey). He was born to Jewish parents who possessed Roman citizenship, a coveted privilege that their son would also possess. In about AD 10, Saul’s family moved to Jerusalem. Sometime between AD 15—20 Saul began his studies of the Hebrew Scriptures in the city of Jerusalem under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most celebrated and brilliant rabbis and teachers of Hebrew Scriptures in all of Israel’s history. Steep in the rich training of Rabbi Gamaliel, Saul became a Pharisee, a respected member of the religious community of Jerusalem.

          Shortly after Jesus commissioned his apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Saul burst onto the scene.  He is presented in the Bible as a prosecuting attorney of the Jewish Sanhedrin moving crowds to stone Stephen to death and imprisoning other believers in Christ found in Jerusalem.  To the Jewish officials, Saul had become an effective weapon of persecution shouting threats of violence, imprisonment, and death against the early Christians.  The Bible says Saul was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1a).  Now we might think that Luke’s description of Saul as issuing “murderous threats” might be done for some dramatic effect, but I think Luke was telling his readers something important about the mind and the spirit of Saul.

          Saul was a man who had studied the Hebrew scriptures diligently under one of the greatest rabbis in history.  Saul was a well-read man accustomed to the nuance of language and the art of speaking and reasoning with others to draw them into a deeper understanding of God.  And yet this same man was now seen as inciting crowds to stone people to death and issuing murderous threats to others.  There is no evidence Saul sought in any way to reason with the followers of Jesus of what Saul believed was their errors in understanding God.  Saul, with his years of thoughtful training in the Scriptures, had become a man capable only of physical violence and murderous threats of physical violence.  Saul had become a man who was divided.  The man of reason had become a man of violence.  Saul had become wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy.  Saul had become a man who was internally uncertain and had great darkness about him.  Saul had a deep unrest about himself and a contradiction within his soul.  Saul was no longer worshipping God.  Step by step, Saul had walked away from God until Saul no longer understood God or himself.

We like to think that somehow, we humans are so much different from our ancient ancestors, much more sophisticated and no easily led astray.  How we express ourselves today may be different, but we are more like our ancient ancestors than we are different from them.  If in us there is a deep unrest, a contradiction within our souls, a darkness about us, or an internal uncertainty as was the case of Saul, then our mind and spirit are struggling to worship God leading us to be divided, feeling inferior, and profoundly unhappy. 

          Paul pursued his persecution of Christians with greater zeal, acting as though if he could just work harder persecuting the church then his darkness and profound happiness would be resolved.  Nothing changed for Saul.  Doing more and more of the things that divide our spirit ever resolves the conflict within us.  Nothing can change until God intervenes.  In Saul’s case, God intervened in a dramatic way.  On his way to Damascus, God chose to strike Saul with a blinding light causing Saul to fall to the ground.  In the moment that followed, Saul heard from the heavens, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city [Damascus], and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:4b-6).  Saul who had become all about physical threats, intimidation, imprisonments, and even death was blinded by this encountered with Jesus. Everything about Saul’s physical life suddenly became weak and humbled.  Those with Saul guided Saul to a house in Damascus where Saul fasted. For three days, Saul did not eat or drink.

          Saul entered an experience not unlike that of Jonah, whom Saul would have studied diligently under his rabbi.  In Jonah’s case, Jonah knew what God wanted of him, but Jonah rebelled against God.  “17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Acts 9:17).  During those three days and nights, Jonah fasted and had time to pray. During this time with God and God alone, God began stitching the dividedness within Jonah to bring unity. Jonah’s desire to walk away from God was resolved and in his healed state Jonah would walk with God.  After the three days, Jonah was released from the fish and began the mission to which God had called him.  Saul now blinded for three days and three nights had time to fast and pray.  Saul had time to consider Jesus’ question, “Why are you persecuting me? [And not worshipping me] in context to all that Saul knew from the Scriptures.  It was time for God to begin healing Saul.

          I believe too often we think that Jonah and Saul as well as others in our life could not be equipped to do what God wants them to do until God first breaks them down, so God can build them back up new.  I think too often we hold to the belief that unless someone hits rock bottom there is no opportunity for them to build their life back stronger.  That type of thinking is not true.  When my wife recently went to the Emergency Room for treatment, no one said, “Yes, I can see she is in need of healing but first go home and let her condition and symptoms hit rock bottom, then come back.” Neither the Emergency Room does not work that way, nor does God take people who are divided, wrong, inferior, and profoundly unhappy and break them further so that He can build them up.  God does not take people who are internally uncertain, having a great darkness about them and have a deep unrest and a conflicted soul and then cast then down so that they hit and break apart at rock bottom so He can build them up.  God heals are wounds, he does not first make them worse.  God binds up the brokenhearted, he does not first crush them.

          In the case of Jonah and Saul, God began healing them as they were.  In Saul’s case, God caused Saul to lay aside what Saul had been doing with physical violence and threats and to again pick up Saul’s love of God’s Word.  In bringing Scripture to mind again, God brought light to Saul’s thinking.  God was not dividing Saul.  God was bringing unity to Saul’s mind.  In bringing Scripture to mind again, God brought order into Saul’s soul.  God was not breaking Saul.  God was healing the Saul’s spirit.  God did this healing for Jonah and for Saul and God will likewise heal each of us.

          We would read about Saul that after three days of fasting, “17 Then Ananias went to the house [where and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:17-19a).   

          God moved in Saul’s life to heal him and to give him the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Saul did then was to be baptized.  The division within Saul had been closed by the completed work of Christ and Saul could not imagine waiting one more moment for baptism.  Saul could not wait one more moment to express through baptism his love for Christ.  Luke then reported, “20 At once he [Saul] began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 9:20-22).  Saul immediately set out to preach and to reason with fellow Jews that Jesus is the Son of God and that Saul set out to prove through the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah.  Saul was now doing what he had been trained so many years to do, preach the word of God, and the people were amazed.

          What then do we make of Saul’s experience?  I think there are three things for us to consider.

First, most of us will never have the same conversion experience as Saul.  Most of us will not move from a life of physical violence and breathing murderous threats to being blinded by the light and then preaching the word of God three days later.  Saul’s experience was unique.  Most people who are now Christians have undergone a more gradual process of conversion. Regardless of the process, gradual or sudden, all share the same experience of moving from death to life, from chaos and dividedness, unto a life of order, unity, and light.  Saul who once breathed murderous threats received the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit all believers receive.  Saul would say “22 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). Saul’s words are great evidence that he had been healed by God.

Secondly, “when you hear, ‘State of Emergency,’ ‘Sniper Kills Ten!’ ‘Troops on Rampage.’ ‘Youth Go Looting,’ Bomb Blast School!’ It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”  Those who make headlines with violence and chaos do so because they, like Saul, do not have God in their life.  Those who do not make headlines but cause injury, pain, and hardship to others behind closed doors do not have God in their life.  When making headlines or not these people are profoundly unhappy, meanspirited because they are lost.  They are spiritually lost.  Missing from them is anything resembling the Spirit of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a).  They are lost in their own anger and hopelessness, and they will remain that way unless God’s intervening Spirit comes and heals them.  We should pray for them and recognize that we cannot heal them.  They must be healed by God.  And when we sense that healing is occurring, we should act like Ananias did for Saul and come to convey the grace of God upon them.

Lastly, even Christians can become lost in their own anger, tiredness, and hopelessness.  When we find ourselves in this state, and most of us will at some time experience a dividedness within us, we need to know that we are, in that moment, no longer worshipping our maker, God.  When we find the Spirit of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” is not within us, then we must stop.  We must stop and pray, “God heal me.  God heal the dividedness within me.  Bind up my broken heart.  Mend me. Restore your Spirit within me.” Friends, know that when we pray for restoration and healing, God will honor that prayer.  He has no desire to break us or cast us to rock bottom.  God will heal us and bring us to that place where we can once again worship Him as our maker.  Let us pray.   

04-28 What Can Stand In My Way

          Have you ever encountered an obstacle?  An obstacle is a thing, sometimes a person, that prevents, that blocks your way or prevents or hinders from doing what you want to do.  Those things that may be obstacles to us in our daily life could be government systems, government red tape, or it could be simply a speed limit sign that reminds us to slow down even if it means we will be late for an appointment.  When I worked for the Federal government, we would deliberately encircle the perimeter of militarily sensitive facilities with perhaps 50 yards wide field of jagged sharp-edged stones about the size of small watermelons to serve as obstacles or stumbling blocks for people trying to illegally enter the property.  Sometimes the obstacle to accomplishing something important comes about by our own thinking, making us the obstacle to our own progress.  Sometimes an obstacle is there to keep us safe.  I am sure that all of us have experienced an obstacle of some sort to accomplishing goals we are seeking to achieve in life or even obstacles to keep us safe.

For example, one time Jesus’ apostle, Peter, upset when And just as we have obstacles or stumbling blocks in our physical life, sometimes we experience obstacles to our faith journey. These spiritual obstacles can come from our own lack of knowledge, or from fear or anxiousness, or pride, or sometimes the obstacle comes by beliefs we hold that conflict with God.  The Bible has a few things to say about obstacles and stumbling blocks. 

Jesus predicted his own death scolded Jesus telling Jesus to say anything like that again!  In response, “Jesus turned and said to Peter [and said], ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’” (Matthew 16:23).  Peter, believing himself more spiritually aware of God’s plans than Jesus, for a brief moment, presented himself as a stumbling block to Jesus and the message Jesus wanted all his apostles to know.  Namely, that Jesus mission as Messiah was to serve as God’s suffering servant.

Again, Paul once wrote, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13).  Paul’s concern here was that one Christian judging another Christian, usually in the context of the person making the judgement thinking themselves better than others, was not helpful to the development of the body of Christ.  When we act in our own pride and arrogance believing we are better than others and judge others accordingly, Paul says, we become a stumbling block and obstacle to other people coming to faith and developing in faith.

So, in the development of our spiritual life, there can be stumbling blocks that keep the fullness of God from our life. 

One of the stumbling blocks in the days of Jesus’ Apostles involved cultural prejudices.  We, of course, are so much more sophisticated than the apostles and we no longer have cultural prejudices, right?  If only that were so.  From the cultural context of the Jesus’ Apostles and the disciples they were making, almost all of whom were all Jewish, there were cultural prejudices against non-Jews such as the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  But in Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles Jesus said, “19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).  From the Book of Acts, Jesus said “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b).  Jesus commission was intended to overcome the cultural prejudices and the good news of Jesus to be brought to all peoples.

          In the beginning of the Apostles’ ministry, the Apostles and their disciples limited themselves to the surrounds of the city of Jerusalem.  That was until persecution of the early church began with the death of Stephen, a Deacon of the church.  We spoke about Stephen last week.  After Stephen was stoned to death by the Jews for believing in Jesus, the Jewish authorities began to arrest Christians and jail them simply because they believed in Jesus and shared their faith.  The Jewish leaders, particularly through the work of a Pharisee named Saul, made themselves a stumbling block, an obstacle to furtherance of God’s plans.

The unspiritual and demonic work of persecution, however, had the effect of sending evangelists out of Jerusalem and into other regions.  One of those early evangelists leaving the persecution in Jerusalem was Stephen’s fellow Deacon, Philip.  As we discussed last week, we did not know anything about Philip until he was called as one of the first deacons of the church.  But what we did learn about Philip because he was called as a deacon was that Philip had the Holy Spirit within him and Philip had received from the Holy Spirit the gift of wisdom. 

We would read in the beginning of Acts Chapter 8 that Philip’s first mission was to the people of Samaria.  We know from history and from Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John that Jews thought themselves spiritually superior to the Samaritans, a people made up of ancestral Jews who had married pagans.  Nevertheless, Philip, left Jerusalem and witnessed to the Samaritans just as Jesus commanded.  In doing so, Philip had to overcome his own stumbling block of what he previously thought of the Samaritans.  Philip did not do this in his own strength.  Instead, Philip overcame the cultural prejudices through the power of the Holy Spirit and because the message of hope Philip had to share compelled move.  Philip could not stand in the way of the message of salvation through Jesus.  But here is an important thing to remember. Philip overcame his cultural prejudices to preach the truth, but he never did not change the truth to speak words the Samaritans might want to hear.  Philip understood that the message of Jesus must not be changed to appeal to the audience.  The audience must be called to the message of truth.

What does this lengthy introduction about stumbling blocks, obstacles, and Philip teach us for our own faith journey.  I think there is one thing I would like us to quickly note today. It is that our commitment to Christ and subsequent receipt of the Holy Spirit and receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit means that we, individually and collectively as the church, can do all things.  We can overcome stumbling blocks that would otherwise impede our progress.  In some cases, such as in Philip’s case, we can cast aside the stumbling block of cultural prejudices and reach out, in truth, to people who we had been taught to avoid.  The Holy Spirit will open our hands so that we can release the grip we have on our own stumbling blocks and make us free.  This is another context to Jesus’ words, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).  The empowerment of the Holy Spirit excites us about the truth, transforms us and releases us from our own stumbling blocks, compels us to share the truth, and moves us in our own faith development. That is what happened to Philip as he went to Samaria.

Now after Samaria, we read “26 An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man [the Ethiopian eunuch] had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it’” (Acts 8:26-29).  There is a lot in this short passage. 

First, we see Philip was obedient to the Holy Spirit even though the Spirit told him to use a road that went through the desert without giving Philip a specific purpose and to move toward Gaza, today we would say Gaza City.

Second, on that desert road Philip encountered a man in a carriage or chariot who is from Ethiopia, the overseer of the Ethiopian empire’s treasury, and a eunuch.  At that time, Ethiopia had a king, who believed himself a descendant of the gods. The Ethiopian kings, as descendants of the gods, believed that running the day-to-day activities of the empire were beneath them.  Instead, the king’s wife, the queen, governed the empire.  At the leading of the Holy Spirit, Philip encountered the Ethiopian queen’s treasurer.  And, as was custom in some nations, men who had access to the king’s women were surgically emasculated to keep them from becoming sexually involved with those women. So, it is little surprise that treasurer of the Ethiopian empire who worked for the queen was a eunuch, an emasculated man.

Third, this man from Ethiopia had visited Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and had his own private copy of the Book of Isaiah.  We all have Bibles, perhaps multiple copies of the Bible. But at this point in history, to have your own copy of a sacred document was extraordinary.

Fourth, we might not know but Jews tended to exclude eunuchs from the faith community because the Hebrew Scriptures said, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1).  The direction here from ancient times was the Jews were not to make men into eunuchs because to do so would be to also exclude them from the community.  So, it is likely that this Ethiopian man who went to Jerusalem to worship could not pass beyond the wall, the obstacle in the Temple court where Gentiles were not permitted to cross.  This Ethiopian had experienced a stumbling block to his faith. In addition, other cultural beliefs were applied to the Ethiopians.  Namely, the Greeks and Romans considered the Ethiopians as uncivilized, barbarians, and even monstrous people.

And so, we see that the Spirit led Philp to a forsaken desert road to encounter a man who sought to worship God in God’s own place of prayer and worship, the Temple in Jerusalem, but this person was a man who had been mutilated by his own people and rejected by Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike.  As I say, there is a lot in this short passage, and we conclude then that the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian was not accidental but the deliberate work of God.

As we move into this encounter, we see that Philip learned that the Ethiopian was reading from the Book of Isaiah.  It may well be that this book spoke to this man from Ethiopia in part because Chapter 56 revealed God’s posture toward eunuchs.  Isaiah wrote, “For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever” (Isaiah 56:4-5).  To know that God would receive the eunuch even if others would not, must have been a relief to this man.

          In this account, Philip learned that the Ethiopian had encountered a spiritual stumbling block, an obstacle to his faith.  Philip observed the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah, Chapter 53, and discovered the man did not understand what he was reading because, as the Ethiopian man put it, no one had been willing to explain the passage to him. No one was willing to extend themselves to help this man discover the truth about God.  What was the man reading?  The Ethiopian was reading the chapter of Isaiah that discusses the suffering servant of God.  “Surely, he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). The Ethiopian was reading the passage of Isaiah that Jesus had been referred to when he spoke to his apostles of the suffering and death Jesus would experience as the Messiah.  Those words that caused Peter to rebuke Jesus and for Peter’s response, Jesus to refer to Peter as Satan, a stumbling block to Christ.

We now have these words of the suffering servant becoming a stumbling block to the Ethiopian because no one would explain to him whether Isaiah was talking about himself or another person.  Our passage today says that “35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).  Philip, empowered by the Holy Spirit, revealed the truth to the Ethiopian that these words from Isaiah were a prophesy about a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  This man, Jesus, Philip explained, was and is the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of the world, died, was buried, rose again from the dead, and now was in heaven making intercession on behalf of those who would believe in him. And in that moment of receiving the good news of Jesus Christ, the Ethiopian man, disfigured by his own people, rejected by the Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike, knew he was fully accepted by God through the completed work of Jesus.  This is a wonderful story of how the truth removed a stumbling blocks to faith and allowing the fullness of God to be received.

Not long after this moment, the Ethiopian man saw some water, perhaps an oasis along the desert road.  The Ethiopian said, ““Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (Acts 8:37).  Here along the desert road, the Ethiopian man wanted to be baptized to show his acceptance of Christ and Christ’s acceptance of him.  The man could now see in Christ there was nothing that could stand his way. No walls to keep him out.  No ignorance of God’s plan to keep him out. No feeling of being less than to keep him out.  The stumbling blocks and the obstacles to faith had been removed by the completed work of Christ and this man could not imagine waiting one more moment for baptism. He could not wait one more moment to express through baptism his love for Christ.  What could stand in his way?  The truth of the Jesus’ work had removed the stumbling blocks, and the Ethiopian was free and whole.

          What are the stumbling blocks to our faith journey? They are anything we cannot or willing yield to Christ.  What might those stumbling blocks be in our lives?  Perhaps we have bitterness or anger toward someone.  That is a stumbling block.  Perhaps we have some unforgiveness towards an offense of another Christian.  That is a stumbling block.  Perhaps we are involved in some sinful behavior.  That is a stumbling block.  Perhaps we don’t understand something about God that is keeping us from loving him. That is a stumbling block.  What are we to do?  Seek the Lord and where necessary the body of Christ, His church, so that you can receive the truth and let go of the stumbling blocks.  Give glory to God and be baptized to give public testimony that you are free and walking unimpeded along the narrow road of glory.  Rejoice that you have been accepted by God, not to remain as you are but to be transformed into the image of His Son.  Know that you too can ask, “What can stand in my way now?”  The answer is, “Absolutely nothing.”  Amen and Amen.

04-21 Face of an Angel

          About 10 years ago, I started walking with a woman through the grief experience of the death of her husband.  She was, of course, deeply upset at the death of her husband.  They had no children.  She now lived in her own home on a very small pension.  When she said, “I have $10 left for the month,” she meant she had only $10 to her name.  Her parents and all her siblings were dead.  She had one niece who lived in Florida.  She had a couple of friends from her church but otherwise she felt very much alone and very isolated.  I would visit with her from time to time until her death a few years ago.  During our time together, she would often wonder aloud, “If I died, would anyone even know?  Would anyone even care?  Do I matter?”

          The last question is a universal question, “Do I matter?”  It is a question as to whether are of value and where does that value come from?  We are asking do we add value to the lives of others?  “Do I matter?” is a question that asks am I invisible or does anyone see me?

          The question of “Do I matter?” is part of the theme to our story today from the Book of Acts, the acts of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. The story focuses primarily on the person of Stephen, a man we know nothing about prior to the Book of Acts and we never hear about again after his death.  I think through Stephen’s life we might be able to answer the widow’s question, “Do I matter?”

          We are first introduced to Stephen in the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts.  A problem emerged in the early Christian church, perhaps the first problem the church faced.  The problem was very simply that the Hebrew speaking widows of the church were receiving food assistance from the church but the Greek speaking widows of the church were not receiving assistance.  The Greek widows were being neglected.  That open neglect was a problem because it was causing a division within the church. Jesus’ Apostles acted quickly to correct the problem by calling upon the church to select seven men to manage the food distribution.  The men selected were to be recognized as having the Holy Spirit and wisdom within them. These seven men would be the first Deacons of the Christian church.  We are told the seven men selected were Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.  These men all had Greek names suggesting Greek speaking men were being put in charge of ensure neither the Hebrew nor the Greek speaking widows were neglected.

          Stephen came to our notice because Stephen came to the notice of the early church members.  The criteria for being selected to manage food distribution was not “Choose the strongest people, or the cleverest people, or best organized people.”  The criteria were to select people who have the Holy Spirit and wisdom.  The first name on the list was Stephen.  This means that early Christians believed Stephen mattered.  Stephen mattered because the people saw that Stephen was allowing himself to be used by the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.  Following the selection of Stephen and the other men, the apostles formally appointed the men as Deacons and Luke wrote, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:7a).  Stephen, used of the Holy Spirit, helped manage food distribution which made the church stronger.  As the church healed its division and became stronger, more people were drawn to the church and its message of hope and salvation through Jesus Christ.

          Now, that might have been the end of the story of Stephen.  It certainly was the end of the story as we know it for five of the seven Deacons because we never hear again about Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas.  The history of these five men is that were empowered by the Holy Spirit and faithfully managed the distribution of food for the early church and in doing so contributed to the strength of the early Christian church.

          But for two of the original Deacons, Stephen and Philip, there is more to say.  We will talk a bit more about Philip next week but today, I would like us to continue to focus our exploration of Stephen.

          So, as we know from our prior studies of Scripture that a triumph for the Christian Church often brings about hostility from the world. We see this pattern of triumph and hostility all throughout the New Testament and if we look at the way the world responds to the church today, we see the same thing.  There is hostility toward the church whenever the church no matter whether it preserves or falters.  So as the early Christian Church grew, Luke reported, “Opposition [to the church] arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen” (Acts 6:9).  Jewish histories point to there being 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of the Apostles.  One of these synagogues was formed by people called Freedmen.  Freemen were descendants of Jews who had been taken from Jerusalem as slaves to distant lands when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC.  By AD 20, the Romans allowed the descendants of these captives to return to Jerusalem. Those descendants then established their own synagogue, the Synagogue of the Freedmen.  It is probable that the men of this synagogue were Greek speakers, not Hebrew.  The men of the synagogue were upset with the growing Christian Church, particularly with the work of a Greek-speaking Deacon, named Stephen, and sought to oppose the teachings of the early church.  These freedmen challenged Stephen, perhaps one of their own, and argued with Stephen against the teaching and his adherence to the teachings of Jesus as Savior, “10 But they [the men of the synagogue] could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him [Stephen] as he spoke” (Acts 6:10).

          So, we see again those two important aspects to the life of Stephen. First, he had the Holy Spirit present in his life and second the Spirit gave Stephen wisdom.  As we talked two weeks ago, Stephen had the Holy Spirit because Stephen had committed his life to God through Jesus.  Commitment precedes the receipt of the Holy Spirit. Receipt of the Holy Spirit precedes receipt of spiritual gifts.  Here, Stephen received the Holy Spirit and then the spiritual gift of wisdom.  Such Spiritually gifted wisdom is described as coming from heaven and is “17 first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). This gift was recognized by the early church and by those who opposed the early church, namely the members of the Synagogue of Freedmen.  That wisdom strengthened the church, first in the distribution of food to the widows and secondly in defense of the church.

          The synagogue members then had a problem, what do about Stephen and the early church?  The men then relied upon wisdom of humanity which Scripture says is motivated by bitter envy and selfish ambition.  “15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:15-16).  And so, the members of the synagogue arranged for some men to lie about things Stephen said concerning Moses and God.  With false testimony at the ready, the synagogue members physically dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin, Israel’s best and brightest, to accuse Stephen of crimes against God.  This sort of human invention of false witnesses and false charges that bring people to face penalties under the law is found throughout Scripture and is evident in the way things are still done today.

          Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin.  Accused, alone, and abused.  But Luke added an observation about the proceedings with which we should spend a few moments of time.  Luke wrote, “15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his [Stephen’s] face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).  It is a curious statement to make by saying that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel.  What was the significance of that statement then and how might we see it today?

          First, some may recall that when we studied angels in our Bible study we found that Biblically all angels are adult males or are represented as multi-winged, sometime multi-headed beasts that were scary and fierce in appearance.  Biblically, angels are not feminine, childlike, or extraordinarily gentle in appearance as most artwork and figurines of today would suggest.  I don’t think Luke meant for his readers to believe that Stephen looked like an angelic beast.  So that leaves us with the idea that Stephen looked like an angel who appeared as an adult male, which Stephen was.

Luke who wrote the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke gave us insight into angels.  In Luke’s descriptions of the angels who encountered Zechariah in the Temple, Mary – Jesus’ mother, the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, and with inference at the resurrection of Jesus we would see that Luke suggests angels, messengers from God, have the appearance of courage and confidence.  The arrival of an angel may be frightening but their way and appearance is to give calmness to the faithful.  The angels display the glory of God, a shining of the divine into the mortal world. The term face of an angel used by Luke suggests that Stephen’s appearance then was as though he had light about him that displayed courage, confidence, and calmness while accusations of fake crimes were presented by false witnesses whose faces no doubt expressed the darkness of theatrical outrage at everything Stephen said. Stephen was unmoved and unwavering. Stephen’s face showed no hint of human distress or concern because Stephen, being the messenger of God, was doing and saying exactly what was required.  Stephen knew his life was not his own.  His life had been given to God and therefore, was a life that mattered. Stephen’s life mattered because he knew God and was being used to strengthen God’s church. 

          I think Luke’s observation that Stephen’s face was like that of an angel was placed in the middle of Stephen’s story as a means of conveying to Luke’s audience who now includes you and me a high point we can expect of Christian commitment.  Stephen was a committed Christian, who had the presence of the Holy Spirit within him. Other Christians could see and sense the fullness of the Holy Spirit within Stephen’s life.

          With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Stephen was gifted with Godly wisdom, pure and unmotivated by prejudice.  That gift too could be seen not only by Christians but also by those opposed to Christ. Stephen used that gift of wisdom to heal divisions within the early Church and to bridge divisions with those who had honest questions of the Christian faith journey.  Because of the presence and gift of the Holy Spirit, Stephen had a calm demeanor that stayed that way even when it became clear that he faced severe persecution.  As the pressure upon Stephen increased by the false accusations, his face never showed it. In fact, as the pressure upon Stephen increased, his face appeared less human and more heavenly.

          What does this story then mean to us?  I think there are a few lessons.  First, if we want the life God intends for us, we must first commit our lives to Him.  It sounds like an obvious first step, but I have met too many people who want God to change their life without any commitment to Him first.  Second, once we have committed our life to God, then God’s Holy Spirit will take up residence within us.  We are at the point, fully human with a divine spirit within us to strengthen and guide our behaviors.  Third, with the Holy Spirit, comes spiritual gifts given primarily for us in strengthening the witness of the church of Jesus Christ in this world. All Christians are gifted to strengthen the church.  Fourth, the more we use our gifts, the more the presence of the Holy Spirit becomes within us.  Perhaps said another way, the more we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us, the more we too will have a face that looks like the face of an angel.  Fifth, when we are committed to Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and employing those gifts to strength the church, we can be supremely assured that we matter.  We can be assured that we matter a great deal to God. We can then be assured that our life spent outworking our faith will be noticed within the church and will be noticed by God who will upon our calling home will greet us with the words, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.”

          I think back on these lessons in reflection of the widow I mentioned at the beginning of this message with the question, “Do I matter?”  She had no children, few friends, almost no family, no wealth, no influence over politics or policies.  Yet, I can tell you she mattered.  Why am I so sure?  She was a committed Christian.  She had the Holy Spirit within her.  She had been gifted by the Holy Spirit and she was using her gift to strengthen the church.  How did she do that?  As I mentioned, she was a greeter at her church, a local contemporary church of some size.  She was often the first person members and visitors saw as they entered the building. She was there to hand people a bulletin but more than that she was there to welcome people to be part of Christ. She was particularly gifted in welcoming those who struggled with health issues, those with physical handicaps, and young children.  These people were happy and looked forward to seeing this woman on Sunday mornings because she helped them understand that they mattered.  These people loved coming to church because they felt loved the moment they entered the building.  To these people, this widow had a face like that of an angel.  She mattered.

          Don’t wonder if you matter?  Commit to Christ.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  Accept the gifts given.  Use your gifts to strengthen the church.  Do not undervalue anything you are gifted to do whether it is to help with the distribution of food, greeting those coming to church, writing cards and notes of encouragement, being a musician in the church, teaching others, keeping the church running, and the list goes on.  God values that you are using his gift as though you were using for him.  When we learn and apply these lessons, we are moving toward displaying ourselves with confidence, courage, and calmness because we know our life is not our own.  Our life is in God’s hands, and we matter to Him.  Amen and Amen.

04-14 Consequences of Commitment

          Suppose for a moment that no one in your life would agree to make any commitment to you?  I mean no commitment to you.  The mailman who has made a commitment to deliver the mail six days a week, would never deliver your mail.  The cashiers in the grocery store who have made a commitment to scan and pack customer groceries, simply turned their backs on you and walked away every time you put your items on the conveyer belt.  No matter who you called on the telephone, sent a text message to, or an email to, no one ever replies to you.  No one ever fulfills a commitment to you.  Ever.  Living in that manner would be miserable.  So, as we think just a moment about living a life in which no one commits to us about anything, we come to realize how our lives are dependent upon commitments.  We can see how much commitments means and how much we need commitments.

          So, our physical life is full of needs and is dependent upon commitments we receive and commitments we make.  How is it then that we know our physical life is dependent upon commitments that so many people today believe that their spiritual life requires no commitments?  For example, nearly one-quarter of all Americans categorize their spiritual lives as a “None.”  A “None” is a person who believes themselves to be “skeptical and does not believe in God or religion,” although they might believe in some higher power.  This means that nearly 25% of our population believes in nothing spiritual or in something spiritual, a higher power, that gives nothing and requires nothing.  In other words, 1 in 4 people we will meet this week do not have a spiritual life because they believe there is no God or there is no commitment from their higher power and no commitment they have made to their higher power.  Interestingly enough, when we lack a commitment to our spiritual life we also lack commitment in our physical life.  Studies show that people who lack spiritual commitment vote less often, do less volunteer work, and follow public affairs far less often than religiously affiliated people.

          And the news concerning self-described Christians in America isn’t a great story of commitment either.  Of those who affiliate with a mainline denomination church, we would find that about 1/3 of their members will attend weekly, with the remaining two thirds attending rarely or never.  Who are the mainline churches?  In most literature, mainline churches are considered American Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  The commitment level from parishioners to their God is perhaps in many cases, lukewarm. 

Why is there a growing lack of commitment, in general and to a spiritual life in particular?  There are probably too many reasons people give as to why they do not commit to God for us to consider in the time we have together today.  But let’s just take one overarching reason.  People do not commit because they do not believe there is a need to commit.  We human beings are crisis driven animals.  We are prone to act only when there is a crisis, or we perceive there is a crisis. Consider some very simple examples of small crises we share and experience every day.  Why do we eat?  We eat because we feel hunger pains.  We eat because we feel distressed if we have gone too long without eating.  That is a very small crisis.  Why do we drink fluid?  Same reasons as eating.  We drink because we feel thirst and we become distressed if we have gone too long without drinking.  Again, a very small crisis.  And even though they are small crises, we are forced by hunger pangs and thirst to seek a remedy, namely, we will seek food and water. 

How do the daily crises of food and water translate to humans experiencing of being motivated to act on a spiritual crisis?  Do we experience spiritual crises that cause us to seek remedy? That question is at the heart of our New Testament experience today.

Jesus’ apostles, primarily Peter and John, had been preaching in Jerusalem, in the Temple courts, daily.  The message was very much the same each time they spoke.  Fellow Israelites, “13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he [Pilate] had decided to let him [Jesus] go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer [Barabas] be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life [Jesus], but God raised him [Jesus] from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:13-15). This was the Apostles statement of the spiritual crisis faced by their listeners.  “You handed over God’s son [Jesus] to be killed.  You disowned God’s Son.  You killed the author of life.  You will stand before God and you will be rightfully and justly found guilty by God of betrayal, disowning, and killing God’s only Son.  You have sinned mightily against God.”  Peter and John are not describing a physical crisis.  They are describing a fundamental spiritual crisis, and, worse yet, it is a crisis that their listeners cannot fix on their own. What are they to do?  Peter said, “19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19a).  Repent, stop your life to sin, stop our life to doing things your way.  Instead, commit your life to God and your sins, no matter what they may be, even having personal involvement in the betrayal, disowning, and killing God’s only Son, will be wiped away.  The number who believed in the apostles’ message of crisis and immediately committed their lives to God through Jesus Christ was 3,000 and as the message was preached again and again the number of committed quickly grew to 5,000. The spiritual crisis faced by Peter and John’s listeners was resolved by a commitment to God.  This was a wonderful experience, but not every one saw it that way.

The Jerusalem religious leaders were furious at the apostles for their preaching and had Peter and John arrested.  At the hearing before the religious leaders, Peter and John were ordered not to talk about this spiritual crisis ever again and to never mention the salvation offered in Jesus.  The disciples refused the leader’s order saying, “12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  The apostles were committed, and the disapproval of the religious leaders meant nothing to Peter and John.  The spiritual crisis Peter and John had had was over after they committed to Jesus because their sins were wiped out.  Peter and John knew they would not face God as judge because they had accepted God’s work through Jesus as their savior.  After being warned by the Jerusalem leaders, Peter and John were released.

Shortly after being released, Peter and John were back in the Temple courts preaching salvation through Jesus.  Again, the apostles were arrested and put in a jail cell.  Not longer thereafter, Peter and John were miraculously released from the cell and rather than escape, they immediately began preaching again. Peter and John were again taken into custody and told to stop preaching about Jesus.  Luke reported, “29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.  33 When they [the religious leaders] heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them [the apostles] to death” (Acts 5:29-33).

          Instead of death, the religious leaders had Peter and John flogged and ordered them to not talk anymore about Jesus.  “41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:41-42).  Every day, these apostles, who were committed to God through Jesus, joyfully went against the will of the religious leaders to accomplish the will of God.

          Let’s pause in the story for a moment to realize something about committed people.  There are five things for us to note.  First, committed people move toward their goals with force. They don’t care about the disapproval of others. That is a consequence of a committed person.  Second, committed people are loyal.  They stick with their priorities.  Third, committed people stay with very specific goals.  They know what they have been called to do and they do it.  Fourth, committed people are tough.  They are willing to endure hardship.  Fifth, committed people are happy.  They have deep convicted joy in their life because their life has meaning and purpose to it.  These are the consequences of commitment we saw in the disciples.  After the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles, committed to Jesus, became influential, loyal, dreamers, tough, and joyful people.  This is the type of faith and life Jesus desires for each of us.

          Why then is it that many people who claim Christ are seen as lukewarm.  Jesus warned about being lukewarm.  In the Book of Revelation, we would read, “14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:  These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:14-19).

          God’s Word reveals to us why many people do not commit to Him.  First, the Christians in Laodicea [center of modern-day Turkey] felt physically wealthy giving them the impression they were self-sufficient.  There was a story I read years ago about a Roman emperor who was trying to get Christians under control.  Persecution of the Christians was not working as it only resulted in more people becoming Christians.  After some time in thought, the emperor said, “I know how to tame the Christians.  I will prosper them.”  Americans are wealthy by Biblical standards and therefore do not commit because of their lack of physical need.  “Don’t worry, be happy!”  This makes them dull to needs in general. 

The second thing the scripture from the Book of Revelation revealed is that the Laodiceans who were dull to physical needs became dull to spiritual needs.  These Christians were described as being blind because they could not see how their nakedness, their own sinfulness, before a Holy God.  This passage of Scripture was not directed toward nonbelievers, it was directed at Christians who could not see the spiritual crisis that was coming their way because they were blind and would not had not committed.  They were lukewarm and as a result were being readied to be vomited from the mouth of God.  That is not where we want to find ourselves.  And yet today, a vast number of people are spiritually blind and have been kept that way, in part, because they have no sense or understanding needs. This situation exists, at least in part, too many churches preach only that “God is love,” leading to the idea that a commitment to God does not matter because God will love us anyways and forgive us whether we believe in him or not.  That sort of sentimentality about God is not the gospel message.  The gospel message is that if you want to know what it means that “God is love”, then look at the cross.  God sending His Son to take the penalty for our sin is love. And it is a love far beyond sentimentalism.   And if you want to know how God judges sin, then look at the cross.

I under this dimension of halfhearted Christian commitment as well because I lived it.  While I had come to recognize the gift of salvation given through Jesus Chris was valuable and costly, I behaved more like a child interested in playing with the box and wrapping that surrounded an expensive gift.  Most of us have seen this behavior with little children.  You purchase a nice gift, perhaps an expensive gift, as a Christmas present or birthday present.  You give the present to a child, they excitedly tear the package open, pull the toy out of the box, and then instead of cherishing the toy, the child happily plays with box and wrapping.  It was a turning point for me when I came to terms with the love with which the gift [salvation] was given and to cherish the gift.  I came to realize that God committed to me first.  God, in the person of Jesus Christ, bled and died to wipe away my sins.  He was committed to me.  That realization led me, a Christian, to stop being lukewarm and to commit to Christ. But just like hunger and thirst are a daily crisis, a daily choice to eat and drink, so too is needed to commit to Christ every day to satisfy the spiritual hunger and thirst.  Jesus said it would be such an experience but that in turning over our hunger and thirst for spiritual life would be fulfilled.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Commitment to Christ has consequences.  This is true for the nonbeliever becoming a Christian and for the Christian who may not feel they have fully given themselves to God through Jesus.  Commitment to Christ, first and most importantly, leads us to salvation and righteousness.  We can live freely now and forever.  We will see the cross as a fearsome sight to behold because we can get a sense of the measure of God’s love for us and the sense of guilt that has been removed from us.  Moreover, having committed our lives to Christ whether going from cold to hot or from lukewarm to hot with the fire of the Holy Spirit, we will have some very specific spiritual consequences.  There will be in our life and demeanor a certain spiritual forcefulness and influence. We will become people loyal to Christ, able to follow dreams and visions for the kingdom of God with a toughness toward the objective and a softness toward people.  These are consequences of being committed to Christ.  We also will be joyful people because we will know that Jesus has given our life meaning, purpose, and significance. God wants people to know they stand in the path of death and God is offering them life instead.  Let’s each address the spiritual crisis, repent, and commit to God.  Amen and Amen.

04-07 - Make A Commitment

 We are here on the first Sunday after Easter, a day in which we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, the turning point in the world.  As wonderful as it is to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus only changes the world if you and I allow the resurrection to change us. If we see the resurrection of Jesus only as a historical event and not as a moment of personal transformation, then the power of the resurrection slips through our hands like so many grains of sand.

Jesus’ disciples faced the same circumstance.  What were Jesus’ disciples going to do with the historical fact that Jesus had been resurrected.  Jesus died and now was alive.  Were Jesus’ disciples going to be content to treat Jesus’ resurrection only as a historical fact and carry on with their life as good and pleasant people or would they make Jesus’ resurrection a moment of personal transformation turning them into a committed people of faith?  What choice then did the disciples make?

 To begin with, we would find that after the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples acted as though everything was lost and everything and everyone was a threat to their mortal life.  In the Gospel of John, we would read that even after there had been reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus disciples stayed together, behind a locked door in fear of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus’ disciples were taking no chances.  They remained hidden, quiet, locked away, and cowering in fear.  In the Greek sense of fear, Jesus’ disciples were held in terror, perhaps believing the cross awaited them next.  John tells us, “19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he [Jesus] showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19-20).  Jesus’ appearance made true the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and the disciples were overjoyed. 

For the next 40 days, Jesus’ disciples spent time with Jesus, learned from him, ate with him, and received the Holy Spirit from Jesus because they believed in Jesus.  One day, Jesus said to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Then, as suddenly as Jesus appeared to the disciples that evening as the disciples held themselves behind a locked door after his resurrection, Jesus, bodily ascended into heaven.  The days of following Jesus in person were over. And Jesus’ last words to his disciples was to be his witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, starting at the best place to share the gospel among Jews of all nations and the most dangerous place to talk about Jesus.  The religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples feared were in Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jerusalem, Jesus said, was to be starting point for Jesus’ disciples.  How humanly fearful that must have been.  The disciples had to decide whether to commit to Jesus and live the transformed life Jesus called them to live or to go home and live as good and pleasant people.

Ten days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, while Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem, they received the promised Holy Spirit.  At the moment the Holy Spirit was poured out onto Jesus disciples there were Jews in Jerusalem from across the known world. There were Parthians, Medes [Med-ezs] and Elamites [Eel-a-mites]; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia [Cap-a-do-see-ya], Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia [Friz-e-ya] and Pamphylia [Pamp-fil-ia], Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene [siren]; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-10).  This was the moment of choice and decision for Jesus’ disciples.  What were they going to do having been commission by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit?

We read earlier today that Peter stood before this crowd of people from across the world.  Peter who deserted Jesus when Jesus was arrested.  Peter who denied Jesus when a servant girl asked him if Peter was a disciple of Jesus.  But this time, Peter did not run and did not hide.  Instead, Peter spoke and said, “22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:22-24; 36).

This was Peter but not the same Peter we know in the gospel stories.  This Peter had been transformed into a flaming disciple, a burning witness.  This Peter had made his decision.  This Peter had committed himself fully to God and Jesus Christ.  This Peter spoke clearly and loudly to citizens from across the world telling them the plain truth about the person of Jesus and the behavior of those who killed Jesus.  Peter made clear that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus was put an end to death, and Peter’s listeners were guilt of being sinners against God.

From the witnesses across the world, came only one question to Peter and the other disciples, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37b).

That question, “What shall we do?” is a universal and timeless question when presented with the testimony about Jesus.  “What shall we do?”  Shall I accept what has been said as a historical fact and live my life as a good and pleasant person or shall I accept the testimony as a moment of personal transformation?  That day, in Jerusalem, Peter said this is what you do, “38 Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  And three thousand people from across the known world accepted the witness testimony of Peter and believed in Jesus as their Lord and Messiah.  These 3,000 people were not witnesses of Jesus.  They accepted Jesus on the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses.  What these people had was the fearless witness testimony of Pete that Jesus was the Lord and Messiah who died for their sins and was raised from the dead. That is the gospel message, the good news that the resurrected Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.  Peter’s sermon that day represent what the earliest Christians believed.  These 3,000 people did not benefit from any of the gospels or letters of the New Testament.  No Bible studies, no choir music, no praise music, no priests, no pastors, no saints, no church as we might know it.  And yet these 3,000 people committed themselves to believing in Jesus as Lord and Messiah freeing them from the death of sin.  Simple.

Now we must ask, “What was the so what of this experience?”  Yes, there were 3,000 people who committed their lives to Jesus and the gospel message.  Were these new early believers transformed in any way by and through their commitment?

Luke gives us a little insight to that question.  After the baptisms of these 3,000 people Luke recorded, “42 They [the new disciples] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

 I think there is something important here that we often overlook.  The new disciples’ behaviors were changed by their commitment and belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  First came the commitment with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and then came the change.  These new disciples committed themselves to Jesus and then:

  • Devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching,
  • Devoted themselves to being in fellowship with other believers.
  • Devoted themselves to eating with other believers.
  • Devoted themselves to prayer.
  • Sold possession and property to make sure the physical needs of other believers were taken care of.
  • Went to the Temple every day.
  • Had sincere and glad hearts.
  • Praised God.

First these disciples committed themselves to God through Jesus Christ.  These people got themselves right with God first and then expressed that rightness with other people.

Why am I emphasizing this pattern from Scripture of commitment to God first and an express a transformed life second.  I am doing so because I do not think this is how discipleship is approached in our churches today.  People are much more apt to come to a church and be invited to a church to participate in the outworking of a Christian life.  Unbelievers, seekers, and “I sort of believers,” come to church and in doing so they might become in their minds disciples of Jesus Christ because they:

  • Listened to a sermon or two to see if the pastor makes convincing arguments or is entertaining to them or spiritually fed.  That is much different than being devoted to the Apostles’ teaching,
  • Attend a potluck dinner after service if they don’t have something else to do.  That is much different from being devoted fellowship with other believers.
  • Might attend a dinner at a believer’s home so long as it was convenient.  That is much different from being devoted to eating with other believers.
  • Will sit quietly while someone else prays.  Different again from being devoted to prayer.
  • Will put a couple of dollars in the collection plate.  Far different from selling one’s possession and property to make sure the physical needs of other believers were taken care of.
  • Will not come to church every week. Christmas, Easter, and maybe once every six weeks or so is the norm.  That is way different from going to church every week, never mind every day.
  • Might have gladness in their hearts but their life is not fundamentally changed in which their hearts love God and love other believers all the time with sincerity and they are glad every time they do so.
  • And lastly, and sadly, they will not praise God.  Why not? Because they have no real relationship with God and do not know what it means to call Jesus Lord and Savior because they never committed themselves to Jesus.

Please understand, what I am saying might sound offensive.  I mean no offense.  I am simply stating facts.  I am trying to paint a picture about the way things are when we try in our own strength to live a transformed life with an eye toward someday making a commitment, I mean a genuine commitment to God.  When we approach our faith with transformed behavior first and then commitment to God, that is opposite the pattern of first disciples, two things happen. First, we fail at transforming our own lives no matter how hard we try because we are not strong enough to do so because we would lack the Holy Spirit.  Second, we will not make a genuine commitment to Christ.  We will feel like we sort of have made the commitment and hope that what we have done is enough to please God.  I know this pattern well.  I lived this pattern for many years until one day I surrendered to Jesus.  In some ways, it was like starting over in my walk of faith because this time I was not doing it in my own strength or for anyone other than my Lord and Savior.

          Peter’s words to his listeners were uncomfortable for them to hear but Peter’s words were sincere as he urged his listeners to stop everything they were doing and consider their relationship with God.  I am asking that this week, we all take Peter’s words most seriously and examine ourselves to see if our first priority has been to make a commitment to God through Jesus Christ that in doing so we would be forgiven and granted the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s make sure we follow the Biblical pattern of commitment to God above everything else.  Amen and Amen.