What to do when Covid is a no-win situation for churches (and other orgs) – Current Events Q3 2020, Part 5

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Earlier this week the local school board met to discuss how to handle the upcoming start of the school year. Should kids be back in the building? If so, should they wear masks. By the way, I’m writing this during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, before a vaccine has been developed, and to date 150,000 people in the USA have died from the virus. Numerous people shared strong opinions about the situation, and ultimately the school board voted to send the kids back to school, along with online options for families who preferred that. We’re wrestling with similar issues in the church. Maybe your church family has felt the struggle of what to do. It seems that no matter what a organization decides, they will upset someone. So what do we do?

When it comes to potential disagreements in a church family about current events, as we have seen through the “One Anothers” in our blog series (starting here), we first and foremost love one another. 

Ask yourself, as people in your church family have differing viewpoints on current events, are you loving one another?  When it comes to current events, we can become enticed by the powerful forces at work in our culture, so that the abundantly clear biblical teaching of loving one another can fade in hearts and minds. 

Think about the events of our society in 2020 and how impassioned we can be about them.  The big three in 2020 are coronavirus, racial justice and the election.  What do you use to evaluate how you will respond to these major issues? 

The news media?  Or “love one another”? 

A political perspective?  Or “love one another”? 

Christians, we are members of church families comprised of individuals who must be known as people who “love each other” in all those “one another ways” we just read. 

Therefore, it is okay if we have differences of opinion on many other matters.  But when we differ, do so in a way that the other person has no doubt that you love them.  It is possible to love one another and disagree with one another. 

People of different skin colors, of different sexual orientations, of different genders, of different nationalities, of different political persuasions, and of different theological views, all can love one another, together, in the same church family. That loving unity in diversity is the heart of the “One Anothers” that we, church, should demonstrate in our relationships in our church families.

Sadly, we see many examples in our nation of people who believe that the ultimate test of their humanity is to have strong individual beliefs and an unwillingness to invite any discussion or examination of those beliefs.  It is either their way or no other way.  And that is directly opposed to a “love one another” expression of discipleship to Jesus.

And thus it seems appropriate to close with this last “One Another”: 1 Peter 3:8 “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”

How to be an encouragement – Current Events Q3 2020, Part 4

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Our study of the “One Another” passages in the New Testament continues. If you haven’t read the previous posts, I encourage to start at the first one here. There are more than 50 “One Another” passages, and put together they form a powerful teaching about the identity and practice of the church. This week I am mostly listing them for you, because they speak for themselves. In the second post in the series, we started with the “love one another” verses, because they are the foundation. From there, in the third post, we began looking at how the other “One Another” passages help us apply the “One Anothers” in our lives, and we finished with “one anothers” about selfless acceptance of and fellowship with one another.

This kind of selfless acceptance and fellowship, then, will require Humility and Patience

Ephesians 4:2 “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

1 Peter 5:5 “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

And when things are difficult or when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, it means that we practice Kindness & Forgiveness… and prayer for each other

Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

1 Thessalonians 5:15 “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”

James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

We should love one another by having a desire to Encourage and Build up each other.

Ephesians 5:19 “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”

Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

1 Thessalonians 4:18 “Therefore encourage each other with these words.”

1 Thessalonians 5:11 “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

Hebrews 3:13 “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

Hebrews 10:24-25 “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

That means we will love one another in our Speaking and Truthfulness

Colossians 3:9 “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices”

James 4:11 “Brothers, do not slander one another.”

What we see then is that loving one another, in all its various manifestations, is what we Christians do. 

How to say “I love you” – Current Events Q3 2020, Part 3

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I remember as teenager and young adult feeling very awkward or embarrassed about the phrase, “I love you.” In my mind, “I love you,” was three of the deepest, most significant words a person could say to another, and thus ought to be reserved only for a significant other or family member. Maybe a really close friend. But as we saw in the previous post, “love one another,” is how the church should relate to one another. And it is much, much more than just saying, “I love you.” How should Christians express their love for one another?

Thankfully, the remaining “One Anothers” are basically all reflections on how to express that one another kind of love.

I’m going to suggest some categories of the “One Anothers,” as you’ll see below, but many of the “One Anothers” overlap or could fit in multiple categories.  These verses are powerful enough on their own that I’m mostly just going to list them, asking you to prayerfully consider how you might need to apply them to your life. Again, not all of these have the precise words “one another.”  Sometimes they talk about “each other” or “among yourselves” but the concept is the same. 

First of all, we Christians love one another by practicing Peace & Unity

Mark 9:50 “Be at peace with each other.”

Romans 12:16 “Live in harmony with one another.”

Romans 14:13 “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”

Romans 14:19 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” The New American Standard Bible properly translates that final phrase as, “build up one another.”

Romans 15:5 “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.”

1 Corinthians 1:10 “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”

And then there is a really unique practice of loving one another in the early church, and it gets mentioned four times in the NT! “Greet one another with a holy kiss” as said by Paul in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12. Peter gets in on the action in 1 Peter 5:14, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.”  While this might sound strange to some, this ancient Christian kissing is similar to many cultures which practice a greeting kiss on the cheek. 

Next, Christians practice loving one another through Selflessness and Service

Jesus himself led the way with this in John 13:14 “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”

Then we have five verses from Paul.

Romans 12:10b “Honor one another above yourselves.”

1 Corinthians 11:33 is part of the passage that I read almost every month during worship before our church observes communion.  The Christians in Corinth were being quite selfish about the meal, and Paul wrote, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.”

Galatians 5:13 “Serve one another in love.”

Galatians 6:2 “Carry each other’s burdens”

Philippians 2:3 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

When we put ourselves and each other in proper perspective, loving one another means Acceptance & Fellowship.

Romans 15:7 “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

1 Peter 4:9 “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

1 John 1:7 “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Check back in to the next post, as we look at a few more categories of how we can love one another. For today, did any of these verses hit home for you? Did you sense God’s Spirit encouraging you to dwell on any of the verses? Maybe go back and read through them another time or two, slowly, prayerfully, asking God’s Spirit to direct you how to better love one another in your church family.

What is the most important way to describe the church?

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How do you describe your church? At Faith Church, we often use the term, “family.” Some call the church a flock, a congregation, a parish, or one of many of other terms. None of those are wrong. In fact, there are loads of ways the biblical authors describe the church. There’s one, though, that comes up numerous times in connection with the “One Anothers.”

The teachings of Jesus and the early church are filled with what are called the “One Anothers.”  As I mentioned in the previous post, this five-part blog series is another quarterly examination of current events, but instead of picking out one particular headline, we are looking at how the “One Another” statements in the New Testament (NT) help us Christians respond to all current events. What are the “One Anothers”? They are one of the most-used phrases of the NT writers. As you read the NT, you’ll come across that phrase, or variations of it, over fifty times.

The 50+ “One Another” statements, taken together, form for us an understanding of the church.  We are to see ourselves not as distinct individuals, but as a group that relates to one another. 

Christians, we are a relational co-operation.  We are corporate.  We are people working together.  One of the metaphors for the church, and there are many metaphors, but this is perhaps the most well-known, is that the church is the body of Christ. 

In the first “One Another” passage that we will be looking at, the Apostle Paul mentions the body metaphor: Romans 12:3-5 “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”  Some English versions of the Bible correctly translate that last verse this way, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

Think about that.  If there is any society or culture out there that says humans should focus on their individuality, Jesus comes along and says, “Christians should focus on our togetherness.” 

Christians are inherently relational.  While it is true that we are individuals, and Paul would also teach that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6), we would do well to see our relationality as equally important as our individuality.   Not only have humans of all colors been made in the image of God, equally valuable, equally capable, but also all Christians are born into a new family of God, and thus Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 12:25, “There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

That equal concern is called love.  And love is the foundational quality and action of our one another expression.  11 times Jesus and earliest Christians are quoted in the New Testament as saying “love one another.”  Let’s start with Jesus:

In John 13:34-35 Jesus says very clearly to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  That’s trifecta of “love one anothers”!

In the same teaching, which occurred the night he was arrested, just a few verses later he repeats himself.  John 15:12, 17 “Love each other, as I have loved you.” And “This is my command: love each other.”

In these “love one anothers,” Jesus uses the primary word for love in the New Testament, agapeAgape is godly love, sacrificial love, righteous love.  It is the love that is described in 1 Corinthians 13, often called the love chapter of the Bible. What Paul writes here about love is so good that is it definitely worth our time to read it. 

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Though 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is a great wedding passage, Paul is not talking about spousal love here.  What he says surely applies to husbands and wives.  But originally, Paul was writing about the love that the members of the body of Christ should have for one another. We would do well to dwell on that list describing love.  Loving one another the 1st Corinthians 13 way is a tall order, isn’t it? 

But the NT writers have even more ways to talk about loving one another.  In Romans 12:10a Paul says, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”  This is an instance of the word philadelphia.  And just like the City of Brotherly Love, when the writers of the NT use the word philadelphia, they are specifically talking about the love we have for one another in the church. 

This phrase shows up again in Hebrews 13:1, “Keep on loving each other as brothers.”

And 1 Thess 4:9 “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.”

Then there is the another verse that mentions both agape and philadelphia love: 1 Peter 1:22 “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”

I know we’ve had a lot of “love one anothers” so far.  But don’t tune it out.  Instead think about the person(s) in your church that you have a hard time loving.  Seriously.  Picture them in your mind.  And ask God to help you replace the negative feelings with “love one another.”  Do that prayerfully now as you read the rest of the “love one another” verses.

Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”

1 Thess. 3:12 “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.”

2 Thess. 1:3 “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.”

Then in John’s epistles we hear the command over and over.

1 John 3:11 “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”:

1 John 3:23 “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

1 John 4:7 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

1 John 4:11-12  “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

2 John 5 “And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.”

Is it coming through clearly enough?  We, church, are a people who love one another.  But how do we love one another? In the next three posts in this five-part series on the “One Anothers,” we’ll look at the many ways the writers of the New Testament use the “One Anothers” to help us apply “love one another” in practical ways in our relationships in the church.

Do you have disagreements in your church? – Current Events 2020 Q3, Part 1

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What do you do when you’re at a church gathering and someone makes political statements?  Do you feel uneasy?  Do you sense the temperature in the room start to rise?  What if those political statements are viewpoints you tend to disagree with?  Do you confront them?  Do you disagree? 

What do you do when someone expresses a contrasting view to your own, basing it in what you have heard is a conspiracy theory?  Do you roll your eyes?  Or maybe you don’t actually role your eyes, but in your mind you are.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, how do you feel about that other person?  I’ve noticed that the other person, the one with whom I disagree, can take on a giant quality.  And by that I mean the giant Goliath in the story of David and Goliath.  And it is usually not because the other person has changed.  Instead, it is our impression of the other person that changes.  We allow negative thoughts and feelings about them to grow in our hearts and minds.  We can start to caricature them.  Saying they are always __________ (fill in the blank).  And usually whatever we falsely believe they always are is usually demeaning toward them. 

We live in a time and a society where there are a variety of issues about which Christians have strong opinions.  To the point where Christians of one opinion question the authenticity of the Christianity of those who differ from them.  For example, Christians who believe in young earth Creationism, the idea that God created the universe in six 24-hour days, might find it extremely difficult to accept the Christianity of those who believe God created the universe through evolutionary processes. 

Guess what?  We have people who hold to both views in our church. In your church, you most likely have people of both views too.

Or another example.  Christians who believe that an LGBTQ lifestyle is compatible with Christianity might look down on Christians who believe that an LGBTQ lifestyle is sinful in God’s eyes. 

Guess what?  We have people who hold to both views in our church, and again, I suspect you have both in your church.

Or what about the president and politics?  We have people in our church who are Republicans and we have people who are Democrats.  How about you? My guess is that some of you are very conservative, while some are moderate, some progressive and some liberal. 

Some of you believe the Bible is the literal word of God, while some believe it is a lot more complicated than that.  Some you believe that speaking in tongues is severely lacking in the church, while some of you believe it is a hoax. 

What are we to do with the fact that we disagree with one another about so many things?

The teachings of Jesus and the early church are filled with what are called the “one anothers.”  In this week’s five-part series, we are going to look at how the “one another” statements in the New Testament relate how we handle current events.  So check back in tomorrow!

Let your freedom be ruled by love – Acts 21, Part 5

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A man and his family went to church recently. This man and his family are healthy people, and believed that they do not need to wear masks. I’m writing this in July 2020 as coronavirus cases in the USA just exceeded 4 million, and many states are requiring the wearing of masks in public places like church worship gatherings. In the lobby a welcome team member approached them asking if they would be interested in wearing masks, and they declined. The next day, the man was scrolling through his social media feed, when a post caught his attention. A woman in his church wrote that she was disappointed to see people in worship not wearing masks, and thus she would no longer be attending worship. So the man decided to debate with the woman, commenting on her post, and they got into a heated argument online.

What should Christians do about situations like this? In this five-part series on Acts 21 (starting here), we’ve watched Paul navigate the complex cultural situation of the early church in Jerusalem. What do we learn from Paul?

We Christians need to practice love, humility, self-sacrifice, etc.  It is interesting that Paul submits himself to a Jewish purification rite (Acts 20:20-26) in obedience to the Christian leaders, and in an attempt to avoid controversy.  Paul was clearly free to live out his faith in Jesus differently, as he did in Gentile areas he visited, but because he was in Jerusalem, he submits.  This definitely connects to his teaching in 1 Cor 8-10 and Romans 14-15, where he teaches that love should be our guide for handling differences of opinion in the church. 

What I love about Paul is that he obeys the church leaders’ wishes for him to go through the purification right.  In other words, Paul is saying, “Though I don’t have to do this, though I am free in Christ, I am going to submit myself to your wishes because I love the church, because I want to pursue unity.”  Do you see that?  This is the biblical principle of making sure that our freedom is ruled by love.   It should not be the other way around. 

Where this gets very difficult is the situation of what others have called the Professional Weaker Brother or Sister.  The Professional Weaker Person is legalistic.  They have made rules that they believe are right, and if everyone else doesn’t follow them, the Professional Weaker Person declares those other people are outside the fold. The Professional Weaker Brother is the person who says things like, “I can’t fellowship with you if you don’t agree with my perspective.”  Or “Christians agree with me.”  They are very similar to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.  Devoid of love.  And we know how strongly Jesus confronted them and pointed out their error and hypocrisy. 

Professional Weaker People are absolutely welcome in the church, but their perspective is wrong and will not be tolerated. Instead we should practice selfless love for one another, even as we disagree about a great many things.  Let your freedom be ruled by love.

Do politics and tradition guide your thinking more than Jesus? – Acts 21, Part 4

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In 1991 the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, was in a run-off election to become governor of Louisiana. In the four weeks leading up to the run-off, the New Orleans Saints were playing a home game, and a black season ticket holder told the story of his feelings as loud eruptions of human noise sounded at various points throughout the stadium. It wasn’t because of the football game. David Duke had received permission to greet the crowds at various points around the stadium. When he would emerge from a tunnel, some of the crowd nearby would cheer in support of Duke, and some would jeer him. The man telling this story began to grow nervous, knowing that soon Duke would appear near his section of the stands. Why nervous? Because until that day, the ethnically diverse crowd around him were unified in support of their team, the Saints. What would happen if some of those same people, people he had become friends with over the years they had shared space as season ticket holders, expressed a viewpoint about Duke he disagreed with? He felt the anxiety because he knew it would change things. (My thanks to the podcast Slow Burn for sharing this story, in Season 4, Episode 6, “A Concerned Citizen.”)

Is there any cultural, philosophical or theological variety in your church family? If so, how does that work out? Do people disagree? Humans tend to congregate with like-minded people. It can be so complex and confusing to navigate the many opinions, strong opinions in our world.

In this five-part series studying Acts 21, starting here, I suggest that there are two themes we can learn from. First, what we studied in the previous post, commitment to Christ. Second, in Acts 21 we get an interesting glimpse into the cultural situation of Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem.  While Paul seems to have little intellectual problem adapting Christianity to Gentile contexts in his travels around the Roman Empire; back in Jerusalem, Christianity is still extremely Jewish.  It was difficult for the early church to differentiate the boundaries between what is Christian and what is Jewish.  Paul endures a Jewish purification rite, hoping to avoid controversy from those who would think that Paul isn’t acting or teaching with enough Jewishness.  But the purification rite doesn’t seem to matter, as Asian Jews find ways to accuse him anyway. 

From those early days, and through its 2000 year history, Christianity has been divided up into factions with various perspectives.  In this passage we see the deep divide between the Jews and the Gentiles. 

The Christian Jews saw their faith from a Jewish perspective.  Of course they would, because their viewpoint was Jewish from the moment of their birth, and beyond that, for thousands of years prior, as their nation, Israel, was started by God and guided by God.  Then Jesus comes on the scene, many Jews truly believe in him and follow him, especially so after he was crucified and rose from the dead.  Also the Spirit arrives on Pentecost, and the church begins, and those Jews truly become a part of the new family of God.  But that doesn’t mean that they cold turkey throw off all the trappings of Judaism and their Jewish history.  Not even close.  I don’t think we can truly understand how deep their identification and emotion as Jews would run. 

Frankly, I suspect it could be very confusing.  To what degree are the earliest Christians still Jews?  To what degree does their Jewishness matter anymore?  From our vantage point, you and I might look at those Jewish Christians and say, “What’s your problem with Paul?  Look at how courageous and committed to Jesus he is!  My goodness, he has spent his life, and almost lost his life a bunch of times, traipsing all over the Roman Empire to tell people about Jesus.  And you are questioning him about his adherence to Jewishness?  You’re way off base.” 

For us, it seems simple.  Paul is an amazing Christian.  Those Jewish Christians should be following his example, not trying to get him to make vows to prove that he still respects Judaism.  It seems like they are really misguided. 

In the contemporary church, too, we can struggle with how to handle differences of opinion.  As I write this in summer 2020, the response to Covid-19 is an example, specifically the wearing of masks.  Here in Pennsylvania, our governor and state health department has issued an order requiring the use of face-coverings to help halt the spread of the virus. But there are many differences of opinion about the efficacy of masks. What should we do?

We can have different perspectives on many similar issues, and frankly our viewpoint so often fall in line with political ideologies rather than biblical theology. It can be very complex and confusing trying to bring a Christian viewpoint to the debate. Should we follow conservative, moderate, progressive or liberal points of view?  There are Christians who adhere to every one of these, and of course each viewpoint believes that their perspective is the right one.  What do we do?  We should not be like the people in Acts 21 who were accusatory and falsified information to get what they wanted. In the next and final post, we’ll look at a distinctly Christian response to these kinds of disagreements.

Is it possible to live a comfortable life and be a disciple of Jesus at the same time? – Acts 21, Part 3

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Do you see the irony in the picture above? Take a close look. Do you see it?

I’m referring to the irony of a person sitting under a comfy blanket sipping a hot mug of tea, while reading about Stephen who was killed for his faith in Jesus. Now do you see the irony?

Here’s what I bring this up, Christians: Paul’s words should be the anthem of our lives.  What words? The words of Acts 21:13 and Philippians 1:21, that he, like Stephen, would give his life to die for Jesus. But how should that be the anthem of our lives? What might it look like for Christians in 2020 to live that way, especially when most of us are not being persecuted for our faith? Wait a minute…Are you saying, Joel, that the person in the picture is wrong for reading their Bible? Are you saying that Christian faith is only true faith if a Christian is being persecuted? Not at all. Instead, I’m asking us to evaluate our faith, and specifically to answer the question if we would give our lives for Christ. And I am asking us to question, what would that look like for us?

I am reminded of Brother Lawrence, the 1600s-era monk who worked in his monastery’s kitchen, and had a continual conversation with God all day long, even as he washed dishes.  The other monks would observe him many times breaking into joyful expressions of love for Christ, to the point where they were weirded out by it, like “Why does he have to act like that?  Show-off.”  Brother Lawrence talks about how he had to learn to contain himself so that he didn’t offend the other monks, but sometimes his emotion would spill out anyway.  There’s a guy who loved the Lord. 

But is that kind of emotional closeness what Paul meant?  Is that how Christians should express their faith in Jesus?  Maybe.  It certainly isn’t wrong to have that kind of emotion about the Lord.  Even if you or I are not very emotional people, as some of us are more stoic, we can learn from Paul and Brother Lawrence.  We could ask ourselves, “Am I too cold about Jesus?  Am I spiritually dry?  Am I apathetic?  Am I too intellectual in my faith?”  I know that when I don’t spend time with Jesus, my impression of my feelings about the relationship is that of fading.  Distance.  What I give time to is most often what I feel strongest about.  When it comes to Jesus, in my role as pastor, I have the advantage of spending time with him pretty much as my job.  Whether that is preparing sermons, lessons, Bible studies, it all helps me connect with Jesus.  I wonder, though, how intentional I would be about spending time with Jesus if it wasn’t my job? 

Do you intentionally make space and time for building a relationship with Jesus?  How much?  What do you do with that space and time?  How it is going?  Do you sense a movement of getting closer to him, knowing him more? 

Paul had tapped into the incredible joy and blessing of having a close connection with Jesus.  He would say that there is nothing better.  And that’s where I think many of us American Christians have a battle.  Is spending time with Jesus truly better than the many other ways we could spend our time and energy?  It often doesn’t feel like it, does it?

Can’t we have it all?  Can’t we have our cake and eat it too?  Can’t we have vacations and hobbies and sports and shopping and restaurants and cell phones and TV and Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, Apple+, HBO, Peacock, CBS All Acces…the list of streaming services is getting long, isn’t it?  In other words, can’t we partake of many entertainments and comforts of American culture and have a close relationship with Jesus?  We sure have tried to make both American culture and the life of Jesus mix together in our lives at the same time, haven’t we? 

I will admit to you that I don’t know if we can mix the two.  Jesus once taught, “No servant can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.”

I don’t know where to draw the line for myself, let alone try to draw the line for you.  Thankfully Jesus and the apostles taught very clearly against the legalistic tendencies of the Jewish leaders.  That’s, in large part, what got Paul in trouble in Jerusalem, as we learned about in the first post on Acts 21.

So I’m not going to try to draw a line for you.  Instead, I ask you to evaluate, is it really your passion to be disciples of Jesus?  Is it really your passion to be changed by the Holy Spirit, so that his life is flowing out of your life?  Is it really your passion to make disciples of Jesus?  Is it really your passion to make his mission your mission, a mission of justice for the oppressed?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who confronted the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp where they killed him, once said, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.”  Somehow or another we American Christians need to find a way to make sure that our lives are clearly, clearly demonstrating that.  Bonhoeffer didn’t just make that up.  Paul said it here in Acts 21:13.  Paul didn’t make it up though.  Jesus himself said that is the standard for his disciples.  Remember his famous phrase, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must die to himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

Die? That sounds horrible.  Who would want to do that?  Wouldn’t you rather sit in a sofa watching Netflix while scrolling through Instagram on your phone as you eat a bowl of ice cream?  I would. And yet, we are called to live a life that is different from our culture.  Jesus called it the abundant life, and thus we allow Jesus to be our guide about how to live that life.

Paul clearly got it. So with this post, I simply raise the questions, and I invite you to consider how you will answer them. 

Can we know if we are truly committed to Christ and his mission? – Acts 21, Part 2

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Would you die for Jesus? That’s a pretty intense question, isn’t it? What does it mean to be committed to Jesus? Even if in our lifetime we’re never faced with death for the cause of Christ, what does it mean to have the attitude and intention that we would be that committed to him? How can we know if we are truly committed to Christ and his mission? Perhaps Paul is a helpful example for us.

In the previous post, we skimmed through the narrative of Acts 21, and mentioned that there are two themes that we would be studying further. The first theme is Paul’s description of his commitment to Christ.  What makes his statement so powerful is that he has clearly backed it up with actions.  Look again at what Paul says in verse 13. After the Agabus has prophesied that Paul will be taken into custody in Jerusalem, and the Christians in Caesarea plead with Paul not to go to Jerusalem, here is Paul’s response:

Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Acts 21:13

Before we examine Paul’s statement and practice of commitment to Christ, first we have to ask why is he so bent on going to Jerusalem?  Just because of the Spirit’s leading?  That is, no doubt, the major reason.  And yet, some of the other Christians do not want him to go there.  We get the impression that, in their minds, it is basically a done deal as to what is going to occur in Jerusalem, namely that Paul will get in big trouble.  The Spirit had led Paul be prepared for that kind of trouble, as we read last week in 20:22-24.  So it is wonderful that Paul is committed to face his brutal fate rather than run in the other direction like the Old Testament prophet Jonah. 

This caused me to wonder why the Spirit might want Paul to head directly into trouble?  At this point, we don’t know.  On the surface, it seems like an unwise choice.  Would you send your best man to their certain doom?  We’ll have to hold that thought for a future week.  The wisdom of the Spirit will unfold before us as we keep studying more of the book of Acts.

There is a second reason, and that is the financial gift Paul is bringing from the Gentile churches to the Judean church.  It is interesting to me that this gift doesn’t come up in the narrative of Acts 21.  We’ve heard about it in previous chapters, and Paul himself will mention it in Acts 24.  But here in Acts 21, when he meets with James and the leaders of the church, that is the moment when Paul would likely have given the financial gift to them.  It is curious, then, that Luke doesn’t mention it.  Still, the gift is a reason that Paul came to Jerusalem in the first place.  Because the gift is not mentioned, I suspect it didn’t have the desired effect Paul hoped it might have, that of building unity and bonds of love between the Gentile and Jewish churches.  

So how are we to understand and apply Paul’s bold statement in verse 13?  When we were on family vacation a couple weeks ago with my extended family, we had family devotions each evening after dinner.  Each family took a turn sharing some of their favorite verses.  My dad talked about Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:21 where he writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  There’s a lot of similarity between the statement in Acts 21:13 and the statement in Philippians 1:21.  Paul is willing to die for Christ.  What is so amazing about Paul’s statement is that it was a very real possibility that Paul could die for Christ.  And Paul knew this.  He had nearly died for Christ a few other times previously, as we have seen in our study through Acts.  In the events of Acts 21, Paul knows that he could certainly die for Jesus in Jerusalem.  That harsh reality, though, is not enough to put a halt to Paul’s allegiance to Jesus, or to his participation in the mission of Jesus.  It also doesn’t matter that multiple groups of people are desperately trying to get him to change his mind.  He stays on mission. 

I look at Paul and wonder, what would I do?  I hope I would answer the same way he did.  But would I?  Would you? 

It is easy to say, “Yes, of course, I would absolutely die for Christ.” For many, perhaps, that commitment is true. The problem is that it’s altogether different when you’re actually faced with death. It’s fairly easy to say, “I would die for Christ,” when there is no threat to our lives.

For example, many Christians around the world today are not faced with death for being Christians.  Actually, living as Christians here in the USA is somewhat easy.  In fact, it could be said that our society is structured in such a way that there are advantages to being Christian in America. 

As I sat and listened to my dad talk about Paul’s bold words in Philippians 1, I was wrestling internally with how you and I as American Christians can embrace that passage as our own.  I feel the same sense of disorientation about Acts 21:13.  We could say, “Well, Paul’s words don’t apply to us because we Americans aren’t facing death for being followers of Jesus”  That’s true, right?  We live in a land of freedom of religion, which I’m thankful for.  But does that freedom mean can we just skip Paul’s words, as if they don’t apply to us?  I submit to you that Paul’s words still apply to us.  In fact, Paul’s words should be the anthem of our lives.  But how?

Check back tomorrow as we’ll try to answer that question!

Is it true that, “when Christ calls us, he bids us come and die”? – Acts 21, Part 1

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I recently watched a few episodes of Netflix’s series Greatest Events of World War 2 in Color.  The series is actual footage from World War 2, but the footage, which was originally in black and white, has been colorized.  If you’ve ever watched black and white newsreel of events in World War 2 it can appear distant and detached, almost as if you’re watching something that wasn’t fully real.  The colorized version brings new life to World War 2, forcing the viewer to confront the fact that it really happened. 

There really was a guy named Adolf Hitler who led a Nazi regime to slaughter millions of people through war and through genocide.  One of those people who lost his life was a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  As I studied Acts 21, which this week’s series of posts cover, the events of Acts 21 reminded me of something Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Intense, right?

Turn to Acts 21, and I think you’ll see what I mean.  Last week we heard Paul’s final teaching to the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20.  Go ahead and read Acts 21, verses 1-16 as Paul and his companions continue their journey to Jerusalem.

In verses 1-3 they sail from Miletus to Syria, where verses 4-6 tell us they spend seven days with Christians in Tyre.  Then in verses 7-9 they travel from Tyre to Ptolemais (staying with Christians for a day) and then to Caesarea where they stayed with Philip and his four unmarried prophetess daughters!  We first met Philip in Acts chapters 6 & 8. 

They stay at Philip’s house for a few days, we learn in verses 10-14, and another blast from the past shows up.  The prophet Agabus, who we met briefly in chapter 11, arrives from Judea bringing a prophetic word saying that the Jews in Jerusalem would arrest Paul.  Hearing this, the Christians in Caesarea plead with Paul to not go to Jerusalem.  His response in verse 13 is astounding, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  There it is.  That’s what had me thinking of Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. 

But what does that have to do with Americans in 2020?  Hold that thought.  We’ll come back to that. True to his word, in verses 15-16 we read that Paul and the group travel from Caesarea to Jerusalem. This brings us to the second section of the text, verses 17-26.  Go ahead and pause reading this post and read Acts 21:17-26.

How about that! Things in Jerusalem start off great.  Did Agabus get his prophetic signals crossed?  In verses 17-19, Paul and his entourage visit the leaders of the church and give a report of their missionary work.  The leaders and church praise God.  Then in verses 20-26, the leaders change their tune a bit.  In order to avoid controversy, the church leaders ask Paul to go through a Jewish purification rite.  This is an interesting section that reveals the cultural/theological differences in the church: Jewish culture vs. Gentile culture.  We’re going to talk more about that too, as it seems to me there are some interesting parallels to that aspect of the early church and our American church.  So to keep the peace, we read that Paul endures the purification ritual.  I suspect that might have been frustrating for Paul, but so far things are going pretty smooth in Jerusalem. 

But not for long.  In the final section of Acts 21, verses 27-40, the city of Jerusalem is thrown into frenzy, and guess who is in the middle of it?  No surprise.  Paul.  Read verses 27-40.

What happened?  The prophetic word from Agabus was right on the money.  Look at verses 27-29. Asian Jews seize Paul. It is important to note that these Jews are not Christians.  What is going on, then, is not a church matter anymore, but a Jewish theological matter.  The Asian Jews accuse Paul of false teaching and defiling the temple.  Of course, Paul had taught Christ, which the Jews would call false teaching, but it is highly unlikely that he defiled the temple. 

Things go from bad to worse in verses 30-32, as the city erupts and the Jews start beating Paul, until the Romans show up.  The Roman commander tries somewhat unsuccessfully to understand what the Jews are concerned about, as we read about in verses 33-36.  Then in verses 37-40, Paul and the Roman commander have a talk, and the commander gives Paul permission to address the crowd. 

With that, we hit the pause button.  Next week we’ll have our next current events sermon, and then the following week, we’ll continue with Acts 22 to learn what Paul says to the crowd.

For the rest of this week’s five-part series, we’ll reflect on what we can learn from the events of Acts 21. Check back in tomorrow as we start looking deeper at Paul’s apparent death wish in Acts 21:13.