Tuesday, June 30, 2015

God Has the Power to Set Us Free!

            This past week at Vacation Bible School, our kids learned that God has the power to provide, comfort, heal, forgive, and love us forever.[i]  If God has the power to do all that, then we know we have a truly awesome God who loves us!  If I could add to the list, I’d say that Acts 12 shows that God has the power to set us free.  Verses 5-10[ii] say:

 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. 

            The Bible makes a clear connection for us: Peter was released because of the prayers of the saints.  The mystery remains as to why James’ life was ended and why Peter’s was preserved.  We won’t try to answer that today.  But when God’s people pray, things happen. 

            The amazing thing is that God doesn’t even require us to fully understand how He works things out, in order to pray for people.  After Peter was set free, he went to the place where the church was meeting and knocked at the door.  They didn’t even let him in at first, because they didn’t believe it could be him—after all, Peter was in prison, wasn’t he?  God takes our prayers and uses them for His purpose—even if our prayers don’t make any sense and even if we only half-believe in them ourselves.  Just like He did for Peter, God wants to do the amazing work of setting people free!  In 2012, I wrote:

Once I knew a man named Billy who had been in prison.  He had served his time, and was ready to be released.  During his time in prison, he had repented of his sin, grown close to God, and become an entirely different person.  In essence, he had made his prison cell into a monastery cell.  On the day before his release, I went to visit him.  I told him that I was going to give him a new name.  He was no longer Billy, I said, but Will—because he had found God’s will for his life.[iii]

                People find themselves in all kinds of prisons.  There are some prisons where other people hold the keys.  Perhaps you’ve felt controlled or manipulated by someone else, held hostage or controlled by another person’s overwhelming personality.  God sent Jesus “to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).”  He came to give you hope and freedom.

Some prisons are of our own making, like the habits and addictions, predicaments and perils that we put ourselves in.  Sometimes our own minds can be the worst kinds of prisons, and we find ourselves in chains of depression, fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, judgmentalism, or unforgiveness.  Sin is the worst kind of prison, because it keeps us from experiencing God’s love the way He wants us to.  In John 14:18 (KJV), Jesus promises, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.”  He will save you if you ask Him to.  It’s very simple—just trust Him to break your chains and set you free.

[i] Our church used the “Everest” curriculum from Group Publishing: http://www.group.com/vbs/everest 
[ii] Unless otherwise specified, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.
[iii] Smith, Greg.  “What’s in a Name?”  July 11, 2012.  http://revgregsmith.blogspot.com/search?q=What%27s+In+a+Name?  June 27, 2015.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Crossing the Threshold"

Have you ever been hungry?  I don't mean the basic hunger when it's three o'clock in the afternoon and you've been too busy to get any lunch. I mean the kind of hunger where it seems like you'll probably never be satisfied. In the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter is terribly hungry. It's about noon, so it's not too late in the day when he begins to feel pangs in his belly. I think that this is no ordinary hunger, but the kind of emptiness that you feel when you're not only physically empty but also spiritually drained.

The last thing we see of Peter before this is that just the previous day, he had been called on to perform an impossible task. A disciple named Tabitha had become sick and died. They had called Peter to help them in their grief, yet instead of morning, he has raised her from the dead by the power of Jesus. Notice it was by the power of Jesus and not by his own power. Still, any great spiritual effort like that can drain you of energy. So I imagine that Peter is not only physically hungry, but spiritually famished at this point. He has taken a walk on the flat roof, a comfortable, place in the heat of the day, breezy beneath a fluttering awning.  He can smell lunch cooking inside the house. We don't know how it happens, but Peter falls into a trance, and has a vision from God.

Peter sees a great sheet coming down out of heaven, filled with every kind of living creature. A voice says, "Arise, Peter. Kill, and eat!" Now, Peter is a good, observant, religious Jewish man. His whole life he has followed the proscribed kosher diet. He has avoided certain kinds of foods, including pork, shellfish, carrion birds and predatory birds, and many other things. But now he sees a sheet filled with every kind of animal, and the voice of God tells him to make a smorgasbord!    He thinks, "Maybe God is testing me," so he remains true to his convictions.   "Certainly not, Lord," he says. "I have never eaten anything unclean before." But the Lord is indignant, and replies, "What I have declared to b be clean, don't you dare call unclean!"

This is too radical for Peter. He doesn't know how to handle something as drastic as this. If he obeys the voice, then he disobeys the Law of God.  If he disobeys the voice then he disobeys God.  Not wanting to obey or disobey, he does what any of us would do.  He does nothing.  This is why the Lord has to repeat the vision two more times, until he finally gets it.  (How many times will God have to repeat Himself before we finally get it?  On the surface, this vision seems to be all about food.  Like a lot of Christians, Peter can’t see beyond the surface meaning.)

While Peter is still inwardly perplexed, messengers from Centurion Cornelius arrive.  Four days prior, the Roman captain had been praying as best he knew how.  An angel had appeared to him, telling him to send for Peter, who was staying at the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa.  Now, the messengers stand before Peter, extending the invitation to come to Cornelius’ house.  And Peter has a decision to make.

Perhaps he decides right away, but I like to think that all the way to the Roman villa, Peter is still unsure what he should do.  Just like sticking to kosher foods, observant Jewish people were supposed to stick to kosher company.  Each Roman home had its own shrine to the gods and ancestral spirits.  Peter knows that this qualifies Cornelius’ house and every Roman home as a miniature pagan temple, so he will defile himself if he enters it.  When he arrives at the door, there must be a suspenseful pause as he stands on the threshold.  What will he do?  Peter remembers Jesus’ instructions as the Lord had commanded them to go through the cities of Israel, proclaiming the Good News.  They were to enter a house, kiss the mezuzah, and let their shalom rest on the house.  But that was how they were to enter Jewish households.  There was no mezuzah—how could Peter give his peace to this Roman house?

Then, beyond the strangeness of the home is the unlikelihood of the man Cornelius. As Peter wavers on the threshold he thinks his memory might be faltering—is this the same Roman captain who had come to Jesus so his servant could be healed?  Or is it the one who had carried out the crucifixion, and later proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God?  Or is it someone even worse?  His own servants had declared him to be “a righteous and god-fearing man, well spoken-of by the entire Jewish nation”—but what were they going to say about their master?  Peter isn’t sure.  So he lingers at the threshold.

Today, I wonder—whose threshold have you been lingering at for far too long?  Jesus has called you, but are there places you fear to go in the name of grace?  Are there people who are just too much of a stretch for you to accept?  Philip’s evangelism in Samaria was odd enough, but Samaritans, hated as they were, were at least semi-Jewish.  Here, Peter stands at the threshold of his Roman oppressor, of one whom he had determined to be beyond salvation.  Following Jesus’ command to pray for his enemies is difficult enough—Peter knows this because he’s tried it a few times.  But enter his home?  Have a meal with him?  Eat his non-kosher food?  Share Jesus with him?  See his enemy saved?  As he stares down at the threshold it seems to get larger and larger, looming up like something that he might stub his toe on, like something that might make him stumble and fall—and if he falls, Peter fears his Jewish traditions might shatter. 

Thresholds can be dangerous things, you know.  In one house we lived in, we had a threshold that was too large—we kept hurting ourselves on it.  Thresholds were originally higher than they are today.  They were designed to keep thresh, or straw that was scattered to keep in warmth and act as carpeting, inside the house.  They were also designed to keep mud on the outside.  They were designed as a barrier—but make it too large and you will hurt yourself.  Now Peter lingers at the threshold, deciding what he will do.  Some thresholds, once you cross them you can never go back.  What will you do as you linger at the threshold of sharing God’s grace?

Peter decides to step inside, into the warmth of hospitality unexpected.  He sees not an enemy but a man.  He sees not only a man, but a whole family, and a gathering of friends, eager and waiting to hear the Good News about Jesus.  Peter’s prejudices melt away as he says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean (Acts 10:28).”[i]   Peter repents of his former attitude and embraces this family as his own.  I wonder, what prejudices do you need to release, in order to embrace the beautiful people that God is bringing into your life unexpected?

Peter continues to say, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10:34-35).”  Contrary to some claims, this verse doesn’t indicate universal salvation.  It does, however, mean that everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God when they come to the Lord in holy fear, and doing what is right by receiving Jesus as their Savior.  As Peter shares the Gospel that day, Cornelius and his entire household are saved, filled with the Holy Spirit, and baptized.  “All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also (Acts 10:45).”

From that moment, nothing would be the same in the church.  Crossing that threshold had been a point of no return for the Jewish movement called The Way.  Gentiles, foreigners, former idolaters—people of every language and nation and kind began to be welcomed into the faith.  Yes, it would require adaptation and change (two words that are still difficult in the church today) to accommodate this new kind of Christianity.  But the world and the Kingdom of God would be better for it.  I wonder, what thresholds are before you today?  What barrier, designed to keep some out and some in, is God asking you to cross?  God says, “What I have declared to be clean, don’t you dare call unclean!”  Then he calls you to have the courage to walk over the threshold and take a step of faith.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NASB.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Unique Evangelism

            Last week I walked into the wrong room in the hospital.  The person I was going to see was in room 400, but I had gone into room 401.  The usual reaction upon realizing the mistake might have been to say, “Sorry,” excuse myself, and go to the right room.  But I’m not a usual person.  When I realized my mistake, I admitted what I’d done but then introduced myself as a local pastor.  I asked, “Is there anything you need, while I’m here?” 

            “Just pray for me,” he said.  He told me about his health problem and said, “Yesterday, I thought I was going to go down there.”  He pointed to the ground with his thumb.

            “Tell me what you mean,” I said.

            “The grave,” he said, “or worse.” 

            I knew where he was going, but asked anyway.  “What could be worse than the grave?”

            “Going to Hell,” he said.

            “Tell me about that,” I said.  “Do you think you’re going to Hell when you die?”

            “Probably so,” he said.  He told me he believed that when you die, God puts all your good deeds on one side of a scale, and measures them against your sins on the other side.  “If your good deeds outweigh your sins, you’re saved,” he told me.  That started a long conversation about his spiritual condition, and just how it is that we can be saved.  I explained to him that none of us escapes Hell because we’re good enough.  We’re saved because Jesus is good enough to give us His eternal life.  It was a good conversation—and even though it made me late for the visit I had intended to make, it was worth it.  I call it a “divine appointment.” 

            In Acts 8:25-40, we read about a divine appointment kept by Deacon Philip, who God used as an evangelist.  But before we get into that, we need to admit that many Christians are reluctant to share their faith.  Some are afraid that they won’t know all the answers—and they might be right about that!  Far too many Christians are biblically illiterate.  Others think that they’ll look like hypocrites.  They’re definitely right about that!  Still others don’t want to appear intrusive or bigoted against non-Christians.  Many people want to leave it to the professionals.  One survey by Dr. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ reports that 98% of Christians do not share their faith on a regular basis.[i]  Another Gallup poll confirms this figure.[ii]  If we take salvation seriously, and if we believe in a place called Hell, then we ought to figure out how we can break this fear of witnessing.  We need to quit worrying that we’ll do more harm than good, or fearing a negative reaction.  Let’s look at what Philip did to share his faith, and see how we can do the same.

            Before he even met the court treasurer, Philip had to locate him.  To do so, he had to obey God’s instructions.  Not all of us can have appointments commanded by an angel like Philip did—but we can be sensitive to the “accidental” divine appointments that are all around us.  Philip could have ignored the call to the Gaza Road.  I could have simply excused myself and found Room 400.  Finding your audience means being willing to be late, inconvenienced, or distracted by those who may take up your time.  Just think of how many people could come into the Kingdom if more Christians just made the time and followed God’s leadership.  So, once Philip found his audience, what did he do to lead him to Jesus?  I wrote about this in 2002:

                First, Philip broke down racial barriers.  Though Philip was Jewish and the traveler was Ethiopian, the deacon shared his faith with him.
                Second, the evangelist tore through the obstacle of language.  Perhaps it was a miracle like in Acts chapter two, or maybe the two muddled through their dialectic differences.  But Philip didn’t let language obstruct his witness.
                Third, Philip overcame the obstacle of income.  While he was a common man, the traveler was likely dripping with gold—a court official to the Ethiopian queen.  But socioeconomic disparities meant nothing to Philip when it came to sharing his faith.
                Fourth, Philip set aside his judgment regarding the man’s sexual identity.  Even though his culture dictated that eunuchs be ostracized, Philip didn’t let the sexual condition of his audience even factor in, when he decided to befriend him.  All he knew was that the man needed Jesus.  And Philip was willing to share.
                Fifth, Philip did not let his own politics impede his witness.  Though there were political difference between Israel and Ethiopia, Philip didn’t let this come between them.
Sixth, the deacon ignored denominational differences.  The Ethiopian was likely a Jew (there are many Jews in Ethiopia), but his brand of Judaism would have been quite different from the Judean faith of Philip.  Philip put these differences aside, because he didn’t want them to impede his witness.  When the new convert asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” the answer Philip gave was, “Nothing.”  We set all kinds of denominational and ecclesiological boundaries on things like this, but Philip’s answer was one of immediate inclusion, regardless of whether it was liturgically correct.[iii] 

            Not all of us are called to be evangelists like Philip.  Some are servants, like Jesus’ friend Martha.  Others are intellectual, like Paul who debated theology in the synagogues.  Some can give testimonies about what Jesus has done for them.  Others use their gift of hospitality to create a safe environment for people to hear about Jesus.  Some are great at inviting people to church, while others have their own unique style of evangelism. 

What’s your unique style of evangelism?  There is no right or wrong way to share your faith.  Well—maybe there is a wrong way.  Timothy K. Jones writes:  “D.L. Moody once spoke with a woman who didn't like his method of evangelism. ‘I don't really like mine all that much either. What's yours?’ She replied that she didn't have one. Moody said, ‘Then I like mine better than yours.’"[iv]  Whatever your method is, you need to have one.  Unlike Philip, God doesn’t call us all to Samaria.  But just like him, the Lord calls us all to actively share our faith.


[i] Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ, quoted in Why Christians Sin, J.K. Johnston, Discovery House, 1992, p. 140.  http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/w/witnessing.htm.  June 11, 2015.
[ii] J.K. Johnston, Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 140.  http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/w/witnessing.htm.  June 11, 2015.
[iii] Smith, Greg.  Spirit & Truth # 260: “Break Down Barriers.”  February 6, 2012.  http://revgregsmith.blogspot.com/search?q=Break+Down+Barriers.  This quoted passage has been revised by the author, June 11, 2015.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Planting, Watering, and Growing the Kingdom

Twice within the past several months, I have had the peculiar blessing of returning to a church that I formerly served as pastor, and doing funerals for people from those churches who passed on.  It has been a dozen years since I was pastor of that church, yet the people of that congregation still remember me well and wanted me to return to honor their departed.  This was, and is always, a delicate prospect for a former pastor to return and conduct a wedding, funeral, or some such event.  Especially if the church currently has a pastor.  In this particular case, the current pastor has been at my former church for two years.  His ministry there is blessed, and he is making progress in the congregation.  He is well-loved and admired by many.   Yet, I couldn't help but feel awkward in returning for those funerals.  The families had asked me to perform the funerals, and had asked him to assist.  When I returned, they lavished me with hugs, kisses, and praise.  I, in return, did everything that I could to honor the dead, but also to encourage and support the current pastor, and to praise him to his congregation.  Occasionally, people would make comparisons between him and me.  I would gently say, "He's not me, and I'm not him.  I'm glad that the Lord has called him to be your pastor."

The church in Corinth suffered from divided loyalties between leaders within the church, and leaders outside of the church.  Some said, "I follow Peter."  Others said, "I follow Paul."  Some said, "I follow Apollos," while others said, "I follow Christ."  And so the church was divided.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 (NASB):

What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

By this, Paul meant two things.  First, he meant that the people should not be divided in their loyalties.  Each servant of God has certain strengths and weaknesses.  Each has special abilities, and purposes within God's plan and timing at that church.  Rather than comparing leaders, the people should seek unity of heart and purpose.  The second thing that Paul meant was that people like Paul, Peter, and Apollos should not feel threatened by each other or like they have to compete.  God's purpose is brought about when they support one another and work together for His glory.  Those who work within God's kingdom need to do so without taking credit, and without attachment to the result.  As we work together, each of us needs to trust God, who allows us to do our part, and ensures that the rest is done by fellow members of the body.  We need to not think that any one of us might grow the church.  Some plant; others water.  God gives the growth.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Friends and Enemies"

          When it comes to conflict, most of us know about the “fight or flight” response.  But actually, those aren’t the only two possibilities.  Recently, I came across the following account of a “reporter [who] was interviewing an old man on his 100th birthday. ‘What are you most proud of?’ he asked. ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I don't have an enemy in the world.’ ‘What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!’ said the reporter. ‘Yep,’ added the centenarian, ‘outlived every last one of them.’"[i]  What’s your go-to response, when it comes to conflict?

            In the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, the church is forced to figure out its response to the conflict that Saul delivered to its doors.  Instead of fighting, it scatters.  Despite the persecution, it continues to grow.  In Acts 9:1-19, we read about Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road, and how a Christian named Ananias overcomes his fear in order to minister to the erstwhile persecutor.  Now in the second part of the chapter, Saul begins to preach about Christ.  Verses 20-22[ii] say:

…Immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.

            What would you do, if someone who had always been your enemy all of a sudden turned over a new leaf?  Would you give him a chance?  This is what the young church has to decide.  Saul has tried to obliterate the new faith—are they now supposed to trust him?  In 1963, Oscar Brown Jr. sang a song entitled The Snake in which a “tender-hearted woman” finds a half-frozen snake by the side of the road.  Picking him up to help him, she takes him home and revives him.  When she clutches him to her bosom and he bites her she cries, “I saved you, and you bit me—but why?  You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m gonna die.”  He replies, “You knew…I was a snake before you took me in.”  None of us wants to be in the woman’s position, so our automatic response is to mistrust people like Saul.  But Barnabas took a risk.  Acts 9:26-28 says:

When [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.  But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord.

          You might be saying to yourself, “I could never do that!  I could never take someone like Saul under my wing and give him another chance!”  But maybe that’s exactly what God is calling you to do.  It seems like a nearly impossible task, but God just might want you to make peace with someone who so far has been nothing but an enemy to you.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).”  It wasn’t a suggestion—it was a command, one you can accomplish through Christ’s love. Joseph B. Modica writes:

In Context, Mary Marty retells a parable from the Eye of the Needle newsletter: "A holy man was engaged in his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank. During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown. He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him. "An observer came along and said to the holy man, 'Don't you know that's a scorpion, and it 's in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?' "To which the holy man replied, 'That may well be, but it is my nature to save, and must I change my nature because the scorpion does not change its nature?"[iii]  

          Just as it is in Jesus’ nature to save, so it should be in the nature of every Christian to reach out to the scorpions of the world with compassion.  Barnabas’ forgiveness, friendship, and sponsorship of Saul resulted in the new believer being accepted at church and eventually becoming the greatest missionary of his generation.  I wonder—what plans does God have for the person that you need to forgive, befriend, and even mentor in the faith?  How might your willingness to reach out to a scorpion affect millions of people in future generations?  You never know what peace and blessing might come about because of your generous love!

          Proverbs 16:7 says, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”  This was Barnabas’ calling, and it’s yours, too.  I pray that God will give you the courage to be a Barnabas, and that you’ll follow Jesus’ example of blessing your enemies.

[ii] All scriptures taken from the NASB.