Tag Archives: early church

God’s surprising views on justice

12 Oct
Photo by Zalmaury Saaved on Unsplash

Last year we started studying the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.  Then I went on sabbatical. We had covered the first nine chapters of Deuteronomy.

Now we’re heading back in! 

For the most part, though, we’re going to study Deuteronomy differently than we did last year.  Last year we went chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  But beginning with Deuteronomy 10, the book changes.  It becomes quite topical, and some topics are repeated in numerous chapters.  So as  we restart this study, we’re not going verse by verse.  We’re going theme by theme.  Or topic by topic, as you will see in this post.

We left off last year having studied chapters 8 and 9, and if you glance at them, you can see what Moses is doing.  He strongly urges the people to love the Lord, to follow the Lord, and remember how awfully they sinned against the Lord.

The really bad sin was when they made a golden idol in the shape of a calf and began worshiping it, saying things like they wanted to go back to Egypt, where they had been slaves?!?!?  We don’t have time to get into all the details of that story, but God was so upset at this, that he said to Moses, the game was over.  He was going to destroy the entire nation and start over again with Moses.  But chapter 9 ends with Moses reminding the people that he interceded for them, begging God to give them another chance.

With that we come to chapter 10.  What did God think about Moses wheeling and dealing?

Read chapter 10, verses 1-11. God relents!  And there is a new beginning.  

With that Moses wraps up the story of Golden Calf.  But why would Moses retell this story?  Remember that here in Deuteronomy, the people are on the verge of entering the Promised Land.  That Golden Calf incident happened 40 years prior.  Many of the people hearing Moses tell that story were not even there when it first happened.  So Moses has a good reason to bring that up: he wants them to remember their past.  They are not getting into the Promised Land because they were so good and special and powerful.  Nope, they are getting into the Promised Land because God chose them, forgave them, and helped them.  Moses wants the people to have a proper dependence on God, and to obey God and not make the same kind of nearly disastrous mistake their parents made.

That is why in the next passage, 10:12-22, Moses has some really important instructions for this new generation.  Look at verse 12-13.  Moses asks the people, “What does the Lord ask of you?”  It’s a great question.  One that we often ask as well.  “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

He answers, “Fear the Lord, walk in his ways, love him, serve him with all your heart and soul, observe his commands and decrees.” 

This is so central.  God wanted a loving connection with his people.  You can really see God’s heart for his people in this passage.  He is saying to them, “I want to walk with you, and be with you, that there may be genuine affection between us.” 

He goes on in verses 14 and 15 reminding the people that while God owns all of creation, guess who he decided to make his special people?  Israel.  Moses reminds them that God is the initiating force behind this relationship.  He started this when he set his affection on their forefathers.  People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Because of God’s choice, the people need to see how their relationship with God is unique.  Because God chose them, they have some choices of their own to make.   He says in verse 16 “Circumcise your hearts, therefore.”

Circumcision was a big part of Jewish culture.  When God chose their forefather Abraham, God said the mark, the physical mark of their relationship with God, was that all males would be physically circumcised on the 8th day of the tiny little baby lives.  You might think, Why in the world, of all the things that God could think of to mark his people, did he go with that one?  We’ll never answer that question.  But this passage in Deut. 10:16 reminds us of something so important.  God actually has a deeper mark in mind.  The circumcision of the heart.  There the word “heart” is not referring to a person’s “blood-pumper”.  It’s not like God is moving his focus from one physical part of the body to another.  He also is not talking about emotion.  Sometimes in our day we cover our heart when we get emotional and say, “Awww, that’s so precious.”  But that is not what Moses is talking about.   In the Hebrew conception, heart referred to your will.

I recently listened to a Bible teacher named John Ortberg talk about this.  He said this: the heart that God is talking about here is your will.  This is your ability to exercise dominion in the world. The ability to choose.

But, he said, while will is central to who we are, it is terribly weak.  He referred to a scientist Valmeister who studied this.  Valmeister did experiments on will, and he found that our will can get tired, like a muscle being used. Our will gets tired, when trying to deal with the stuff of life and especially when making hard choices. Valmeister found that while our will is good at making decisions, it is also terrible at overriding our habits.  If we like to snack on sugary treats, and we do it every day, especially when we are stressed, our will is not good at helping us overcome that habit.

One thing, though, is easy for the will. Surrender. We all think that death to self is terrible and hard. Remember that Jesus said, unless we take up our cross and die to ourselves, we cannot be his disciple?  We hear that and think how awful it sounds.  Author Dallas Willard said that death to one’s lesser self is so that a more noble and glorious self can be born.  Our will was made to surrender to God.

Circumcision of our hearts, then, is another way to say, “People, surrender yourselves to God.”

And there is good reason to give yourself so completely over to God.  Look at verse 17, we can surrender to God because there is no god like our God.  He is the great God, mighty and awesome.  Above all gods.  When we surrender our lives to him, it’s not so bad.  It would be a major sacrifice if Moses had said to the people, “circumcise your hearts for God,” and God turned out to be some second-rate middle-level deity.  In the same way, it would be pretty pathetic if Jesus said, “Die to yourselves and follow me” if he ended up dying on the cross and staying dead, and never rising from the dead.  But no, YHWH is the one true all-powerful God, and Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again to victory over death, victory over sin, victory over the devil.  For us to surrender to him means we are giving our lives to the most powerful one who loves us.  That’s pretty awesome.  We can surrender to that!

As Moses continues through this passage, he describes God, and it becomes more and more clear how great it is to surrender ourselves to God.  Because there is none like him, God has some really interesting points of view about life.  Look at verse 18.  God has an eye out, a heart, for those in need.  He defends the fatherless and the widow, loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.  What an amazing God!

But it is not just God who cares for those in need.  Israel is to follow God’s heart, Moses says in verse 19, loving the alien, because they were once aliens. What a great God we have.  He cares for all people, and has a special heart for those in need.  When we give ourselves over to him, we will also care for those in need.

As we come to the end of this chapter, verses 20-22 give us a quick recap.  Fear God, serve him, hold fast to him.  He is your praise, he is your God, who performed mighty wonders.  Moses reminds Israel of the last 450-500 years of their nation’s existence.  When they first went to Egypt, they numbered 70 people.  Now they are in the millions, and God rescued them.  In other words, they have every reason to circumcise their hearts, to surrender to God, and to follow his heart, which is a passionate desire to help those, like they once were, people in serious need of help.

In the coming chapters, Moses wants the people to get this, so he brings it up again, and again. Turn to chapter 15.  I’m not going to read all of this.  Because we’re going to jump to chapter 19 as well.  In these chapters, I want us to see how Moses continues the theme of God’s heart for those in need.

Look at verse 1 of chapter 15, and the old NIV, says, “At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts.”

Do you have debts? Doyou have debts that have been going on for at least seven years?  And did you just think, I’m going to head over to my bank tomorrow, and I’m going to plop my Bible down and have a little talk?  Please don’t do that.  They probably won’t be too thrilled with you trying to get out of a legally-binding document like a mortgage.

This verse is much better translated “Every seventh year you shall make a release.”  God instituted in the nation a regular pattern of release.  It did include debts, but also slavery, also land and more.  One scholar says, “The laws of release…provide a structure in Israel for maintaining a balance and equity in society, and especially for giving access to the wealth of the land to those who had not property rights of their own.” (McConville, 257)

Hear that?  You just heard God’s heart.  God’s heart is sometimes unexpected.  God’s heart sometimes doesn’t jive with the economic standards of the day.  In Israel, God wanted to make sure the people who owed money were not taken advantage of, or that paying back the loan didn’t destroy them.  And furthermore, look at verse 4.  “There shall be no poor among you.”

Look at verse 7.  “If there are poor among you, do not be tight-fisted or hardhearted.  Rather be openhanded.  Freely lend whatever they need!”  Verse 10, “give generously to him, without a grudging heart.” Verse 11, “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”  Over and over God is showing his heart.  We can really learn about God in these chapters of Deuteronomy!  God has a heart for those in need. 

Remember this all goes back to the fact that Israel did not earn their wealth and prosperity on their own.  God chose them, God saved them, God protected them, he forgave them when they sinned, and he brought them to a land that was capable of making them rich.  God did it all for them.  They had been enslaved and poor and powerless.  Now God is saying, remember where you came from.  Remember how I saved you.  Remember my heart for justice for those who are now like you used to be.  And love them, and give to them, and reach out to them.

In 15:12-18 this theme continues.  Again, hear the word release.  This time, he says, release servants.  And don’t just let them go, saying, “Good riddance, hope you can fend for yourself.”  No.  Give them what they need to make a new start. Look at verses 13-15.  “Supply them liberally!  Give to them as the Lord has blessed you.”

Now jump to chapter 19, and we continue to see God’s heart for justice.  This time with a really interesting idea: cities of refuge. In chapter 4, we learned that Moses created the first cities of refuge.  What in the world were cities of refuge?

Basically, Moses tells us in chapter 19 that cities of refuge were places of refuge for people who caused the unintentional death of another.

You might think, isn’t that rare, though?  Why is God so concerned about accidental death, something that hardly happens?  This one is personal for me.  On this blog I previously told my story, as I accidentally caused the death of an Amish lady in a car accident that was my fault when I was 17. 

When you lose a loved one it is hard.  When the cause of death is irresponsibility, that is even harder.  God know this.  He knows how bad it hurts when you lose a loved one, even when they die of old age.  But when they die unexpectedly, younger, and because of people’s stupidity or irresponsibility, it hurts even more.  People who lose a loved one that way might take revenge.  God had Moses and the people of Israel create cities of refuge where people could flee to their safety.  Again, we see God’s heart for those in need.

In chapter 19:14, there is another illustration of God’s heart. Don’t move boundary stones.  Don’t try to cheat property lines.  Here in America, boundary lines are set by law, and they are highly mapped out.  But even then, have you ever had a neighbor try to snag a few extra feet?

Our property has a rental property on one side, and different people have come and gone.  Each time a new tenant arrives, I talk with them about our garden.  I call it our garden, but it is almost entirely on the rental property’s back lawn.  So I explain that we have an agreement with their landlord to use it, and of course they can too.  We planted berries back there, and they are welcome to them.  So far it has worked great.  But what would be wrong is if I tried to say, that is my property!  That would be cheating.

God’s heart is a heart of justice, no cheating.  Likewise, in verses 15-21, God says that people accused of a crime must have testimony established by two or three witnesses.   Again, we see God’s heart is for justice.  No lying.

Moses in chapters 10, 15, and 19 presents to us that God is a God of justice.  God cares about the poor and needy, the fatherless, the orphan, the widow and the alien.  He cares about fairness and equity.  And we should too.  We should circumcise our hearts, and surrender to him, which means will we learn his heart, think like he thinks, do what he does.  We build our lives on his ways.

What is amazing is how this passion for God’s heart worked its way into the early church.  Jesus regularly taught about helping the poor and needy, and he himself ministered to them frequently.  So when you go to the story of the beginning of the church in Acts 2, what do you find?  Turn to Acts 2:42-47.

In Acts 2:44-45, they were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Sounds just like God’s heart in Deuteronomy!

Turn over to Acts 4:32, and we see this again.  Such amazing generosity!  Those first Christians had circumcised their hearts, were surrendered to God, and were being so giving.

Turn to Acts 6:1, and see how they talk about a ministry of caring for widows?  They got it.  The church knew God’s heart for those in need, and they did what they could do reach out.

When our church did a mission trip to Chicago in 2010, to work with our sister church there, it opened my eyes to God’s heart for justice.  I had been through four years of Bible College, and then through a seminary master’s degree, and somehow I barely heard anything about this.  In Chicago, they walked us through their neighborhoods and opened our eyes to injustice, and they also walked us through the Bible and opened our eyes to God’s heart for justice.  We looked at passages like we are studying in this post, and so many more.  It was embarrassing to me to realize that as a student of the Bible for so many years, I had missed this.  And it wasn’t like it was some small emphasis in Scripture that is easy to miss.  It is all over Scripture.  I am so thankful for how my church family has sought to identify the injustice in our community and seek to address it.

This is why Faith Church is so supportive of Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, which operates a food and clothing bank.  This is why we have been a location for the summer lunch club.  This is why we support Homes of Hope.  This is why we give to the Conestoga Valley Ministerium Helping Hands fund, which provides support of those in need in our community.

This is why we support the idea of abolishing slavery around the world. This is why we support refugee resettlement.  Because that is God’s heart. 

What will it look like for you to so appreciate God’s heart for you, for rescuing you, for saving you, that you allow his heart to grow within you, so you that you reach out to those in need?  Do you need to be more giving, more generous, more involved in helping people?

Can you smell what The _____ is cooking? (When Jesus give you a nickname and changes your life.)

11 May

Image result for can you smell what the rock is cooking

Can you tell whom I’m thinking about?

Read the title of this post.  Look at the picture.

The Rock!

That is Dwayne Johnson’s nickname from his days as a professional wrestler.

There seems to be a specific kind of person whom we nickname with the word “Rock”. Think about Rocky Balboa. Remember the character Sylvester Stallone is famous for playing in how many boxing movies?  20?  Rocky Balboa is a prize fighter.  Dwayne The Rock Johnson is a professional wrestler and action movie hero.  These guys are intense!

At Faith Church last week we began a series talking about The Rock. Not Dwayne Johnson or Rocky Balboa, but a guy named Peter.  How is Peter like The Rock?

We first meet Peter in Mark 1:16.  Peter was a Jewish man from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, which is the northern part of Israel. People from Galilee had a bit of a different accent, and were considered to be…well…kinda backwards.

As Mark tells us, Peter’s Hebrew name was Simeon, often shortened to Simon.  So why do we call him Peter?  The name “Peter” is actually a nickname Jesus gave him! Right around the same time as the events of Mark 1:16, we read in John 1:42 that Jesus calls Simon a nickname, Cephas, which is the Aramaic word meaning “rock.”  “Peter” is our English version of the Greek word “petros” which means “rock”.  Why would Jesus give Simon the nickname, “The Rock”?  In this post, we’re going to tell Simon Peter’s story to find out what Jesus was thinking.

Jesus would invite Peter, Peter’s brother Andrew, their friends and some others to be his followers, most commonly known as Jesus’ 12 Disciples.  Among the disciples, Peter quickly showed his potential.  He is often depicted as speaking first, or in the lists of the disciples’ names, Peter’s is first.  One time in Matthew 17:24 tax collectors come to Peter to ask a question about Jesus.  There is no doubt that he was considered a leader. Furthermore, Peter was bold. Neither afraid to speak nor to ask questions.  He was rock-like.

But, like so many bold people, Peter knew how to put his foot in his mouth. In Matthew 15:15 right after Jesus tells the disciples a parable, Peter pipes up, “Explain the parable to us.” Jesus’ response is classic: “Are you still so dull?

In Mark 9:5 we read the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah, two towering figures from Israel’s history, appear beyond the grave, and Jesus’ clothes turn brilliant white.  We are told that Peter, “…did not know what to say, they were so frightened.” But that didn’t stop him. He said stuff anyway, making a fairly offbeat comment to Jesus that perhaps they could build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  God the Father responded this time.  Or was a it a rebuke to Peter’s big mouth?  God says, “

Also in John 13:4-9, during the account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus gets up from the table and, showing them how they should serve one another, washes their feet.  Peter is aghast.  The servants should be washing their master’s feet!  But Jesus warmly tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.  Guess what Peter comes out with in response to that? “Then, Lord, not just my feet, but my hands and head as well.”  Huh?  Can you see the other disciples looking at each other thinking, “Awkward…” Even in Ancient Israel, grown men don’t wash each other.

Peter was passionate.  Yeah, sometimes he said crazy stuff.  Other times he said amazing things.

In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asks the disciples a question in private, a question he could not ask in the presence of a crowd, and especially in the presence of the religious leaders who already wanted his head.  He asks his disciples about his identity, “Who do people say that I am?”  Well, word on the street was that Jesus was special, and there were a number of options for who he might be.  One of the famous prophets maybe.  People in the crowds had speculated wildly.  Jesus knew that.  But he wanted to hear what his closest followers thought.  He wanted to know what was going on inside their hearts and minds.  Guess who pipes up right away?  Peter.  And as much as Peter could put his foot in his mouth and say really inappropriate stuff sometimes, he could also come out with some amazing truth.

Peter is right on the money when he says, “You the Christ! The Son of the Living God.” Jesus looks at Peter with great approval, and says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my father in heaven.”  What a moment!  Jesus is saying that Peter received a revelation from God of the truth that Jesus is the Messiah!  That is amazing!

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Here Jesus tells a joke, a pun to be precise when he says to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Peter, Jesus says, is The Rock.  It wasn’t just that he was bold in what he said.  Peter also had a bold faith that took action.

There was the time that the disciples saw a mysterious figure walking on the water out to their boat.  As it gets closer, they realize it is Jesus!  So guess what Peter does?  He walks on water right out to Jesus!  And yet, when the wind and waves spray in his face, Peter the solid rock, crumbles, becomes afraid, turns away from Jesus and starts to sink.  You know the rest of the story.  Jesus grabs his hand, steadies him and says “You of little faith…why did you doubt?”

Then just before Jesus was arrested, as the soldiers surround him, Peter whips out his sword, and he cuts off the ear of high priest servant in Garden.  He was bold!  Has his faith become rock solid?

Jesus surprises Peter, telling Peter to put down his sword.  Peter is shocked and confused.  His Lord who he loves, who Peter has committed to follow, seems to be giving up.  Jesus even reaches over and heals the servant’s ear!  What is Jesus doing?  Isn’t this supposed to be his big moment?  Instead Peter’s Lord is now being taken away.  Peter gets scared.  What seemed like a new movement of God appears to be falling apart right in front of his eyes.

With Jesus in chains, Peter follows at a distance, curious, and frightened.  Suddenly, Peter is spotted.  People outside the high priest’s house where the trial is taking place call him out: “You are one of Jesus’ followers!”  Now Peter is really worried.  If Jesus is going down, Peter and the other disciples could easily being going down with him. So Peter, as boldly as he had confessed his allegiance to Jesus just a few hours before, now boldly denies ever knowing Jesus.  And he does it again.  And one more time.  Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus, then the rooster crowed.  From his position, Jesus turns and looks Peter in the eye.  And Peter runs away in bitter, bitter shame.  Peter seems to be anything but a solid rock.

We know what happens next.  Jesus is beaten severely, then crucified, died and is buried on Friday.  Sunday morning, a couple of the women who were Jesus’ followers report to the disciples hiding out in a room in the city that Jesus was alive.  Peter’s head jerks up and he on his feet in a flash.  He sprints out the door, John at his heels.  They run to the burial place, and John overtakes him, gets there first and looks in from the outside.  Peter arrives and rushes into the tomb.  It was true!  Their Lord was no longer there!  Soon after Jesus began to appear to them.  It was true! He was alive!

A few days pass.  The feast of Passover, for which Jesus and his disciples had originally traveled to Jerusalem, was over so the disciples returned home to Galilee in the north.  What do you do when your world is turned upside down?  They went back to work.  I bet Peter needed to go fishing, to clear his head.  The disciples, from their boat, notice a man on the beach making a fire, and it was Jesus.  Peter again jumps out into the water to go to him.  After breakfast Jesus does something remarkable to Peter. Read John 21:15-17, and you’ll see.

For each one of Peter’s three denials, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to say, “I love you,” and he directs Peter to feed his lambs.  This is Jesus restoring Peter.  Peter, the one who was so boldly committed to Jesus saying, “I will die for you,” had actually turned out to boldly deny Jesus.  But Jesus knew what was deep down inside Peter was not a coward.  Peter was not a failure.  Jesus loved Peter, and he knew Peter loved him.  So in this amazing moment, Jesus lifts Peter back up. Peter truly would be The Rock.

Now let’s continue Peter’s story in the book of Acts. Very quickly we notice something.  The first 11 verses of Acts chapter 1 are all about Jesus.  But in verse 11 Jesus returns to his father.  Starting in verse 12, the focus then turns to Jesus’ disciples.  How would they react to this astounding turn of events?  In the span of 50 days their master had gone from national hero to criminal to dead to risen again!  And now…Jesus is gone.  The disciples and other followers, which verse 14 tells us number about 120, do what Jesus said they should do: go back to Jerusalem and wait in prayer.

One of them stands up.  Starting in verse 15 Peter stands up and speaks.  Skim through the next five chapters of Acts, these critical early moments of the life of the church, and one name appears over and over and over again.  Peter.

  • In chapter 1 Peter leads the discussion about who will replace Judas.
  • In chapter 2 Peter preaches the first sermon.
  • In chapter 3 he heals a crippled man and preaches again.
  • In chapter 4 Peter is arrested and boldly proclaims Christ before the Jewish leaders.

Look at Acts 4:13 and what it says there is just amazing: “When the Jewish leaders saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

When you spend time with Jesus, he will transform your life.

In Acts, the story of Peter just keeps going.  He takes the lead in confronting sin in chapter 5.  And how about this verse in 5:15: “People brought the sick in to the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.”  What?  Peter’s shadow had power?  Just his shadow?  That’s crazy wild.  And the dude was catching fish just a few years before?

At this point in the middle of Acts 5, the new church in Jerusalem is enjoying amazing favor.  Tons of people coming to faith, following Jesus, becoming part of an amazing new community.  Miraculous healings.  Amazing generous gifts of sacrifice to help those in need.

Until Acts 5:17. The religious establishment guys don’t like what they are seeing. The new church is encroaching into their territory, as people are following Jesus.  The Jewish leaders are filled with jealousy, they round up the apostles, these uneducated men who hung out with Jesus, and bring them in for questioning.  They flog the apostles and tell them to knock it off.  And you know how Peter and the other apostles respond?  They rejoice because they were counted worthy of suffering for Jesus!  They do not knock it off.  They keep preaching.  The church keeps growing.

In chapters 6-7 we get a brief pause in Peter’s story.  We meet some of the other leaders in the church, Stephen and Philip.  But in chapter 8, Peter is back, now going on missionary trips to Samaria.  For the rest of chapter 8 and halfway in chapter 9 we meet Philip again and Paul makes his first entrance in the story.

Halfway through 9 we’re back to Peter, who is making more missionary trips.  Then in chapter 10 something momentous happens.  Peter has a game-changing vision from God.  At first, the vision seems really weird.  In the vision Peter sees a sheet dropping from heaven, and in the sheet are unclean animals, and God is telling Peter to eat these animals, that they are no longer unclean.  The meaning of the dream was that Peter was to lead the new Christian church to reach the Gentiles, the non-Jews, with the message of Good News in Christ alone.

Reach the Gentiles?  Peter is Jewish.  Born a Jew, always a Jew, Peter followed Jewish laws all his life.  The thought of eating unclean meat, and of reaching out to the unclean Gentiles is repulsive to Peter.  So once again, put your foot in your mouth Peter comes out when he says, “Surely not Lord!”  But yeah, God wanted to reach the Gentiles too.

Peter obeys and the book of Acts starts to take a major turn as God wants the message of Good News in Jesus to be conveyed to the Gentiles. In chapters 11, therefore, we read about Peter explaining and living out this newly expanded understanding of the mission of God to include all people.

In chapter 12, things get crazy.  The local King Herod is getting lots of political heat from the Jewish religious establishment about these Christians.  So Herod rounds up a couple leaders, intending to persecute them.  He actually puts the Apostle James to death.  That was James who years before was fishing partners with Peter.  Peter gets jailed too.  With James dead, it seems like Herod wants to take down the new church’s leadership, hoping to destroy the church.  Peter is public enemy #1.

But God has other plans for Peter. The night before his trial, chained in prison, praying, Peter is miraculously freed by God’s angel.  Peter then travels away to share more about Jesus in other places. That is the last full story featuring Peter in the book of Acts.  He pops up again in chapter 15, at a major church council.  By that time, Peter has become a missionary.  James, the brother of Jesus, is the new leader of the church in Jerusalem.

Historians tell us that Peter eventually traveled to many places in the Empire, including Rome. He is believed to have been the leader of the church in Rome.  He is also said to have died on an upside-down cross. Just before his death, Peter wrote two letters which we call 1st and 2nd Peter.  But also the Gospel of Mark was likely influenced by him.  Mark was not a disciple, but a traveling companion of Peter.

That’s Peter’s story of life change.

I suspect Peter was always a bold, brash guy.  But I doubt he ever expected life would take him much beyond the shores of the Galilee.  He was a fisherman.  That was a good business to be in.  Feeding his family, feeding many others in his area.  Making a living.

He meets a guy named Jesus one day.  Jesus is remarkable.  Different.  There’s a spark.  Jesus says, “Follow me, Rock, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Only three years later, what do we see?  Fisherman Peter is now the Rock of the Church preaching a sermon in Jerusalem to a huge crowd.  And 3000 of them respond to his sermon.  What. The. Heck?  What happened in those three years?

What happened during those three years were lots of ups and downs.  It didn’t seem like Jesus’ nickname was working out so well.  Peter often seemed more like quicksand than The Rock.  But Jesus continued reaching out to Peter and set Peter up to lead his followers.  When Jesus returned to his father, Peter was ready to be the Rock of the church.  The Holy Spirit empowering the church, Peter was ready to lead this small group of 120 followers of Jesus.

Peter was a changed man.

I think Peter would understand the life that most of us live, because he lived it too.  The crushing realities of life seem insurmountable.

We hear ourselves saying things like “I’m just a lowly worker with no hope for a meaningful future.”

But Jesus comes to us and says “Follow me. I will make you…something you never could have imagined.  I’ve got a new name for you.”

We hear ourselves saying, “I feel like I’m sinking in the raging waters of life, and I don’t know how to swim and no one cares.”

But Jesus reaches out to pull us and strengthen our faith.

When life gets really hard and scary and God seems nowhere to be found, we hear ourselves saying “I don’t know you God, I don’t know you Jesus, I don’t know you!”  And we can’t believe we denied our Lord, and we wonder if we’ve lost it all.

But Jesus comes to us with forgiveness and says “Do you love me?”  And we really do love him, and he says “I have a plan for you.”  And we think “Really?  Me?  But Lord, I turned away from you.”  And he says a second time “Do you love me?”  And we really do love him, and he says “I want to use you.”  And we think, “But I’ve screwed up so many times.  You can’t possibly use me, Lord.”  And he says again “Do you love me like a brother?” And we know where he’s going with this.  We know he is right, and we respond “I really do love you like a brother.”  And he confirms to us “Yes, I have a job for you.”  He really does want to use us.

To follow Jesus we need to do what Peter did.  Peter left fishing behind.  Peter said “Ok. I will make a change and follow you, Jesus.”

What change do you need to make to follow Jesus in a new way?  During my April sermon series, what I learned on sabbatical, I told you some changes that I needed to make.  I was feeling trapped by some elements of life.  I got rid of them in order to make space to follow Jesus.  I encourage you to do the same.  The time has come.

Jesus wants to restore you, to transform you.  He loves you.  That is our amazing Lord.  Merciful, gracious, patient.

He doesn’t always turn a fisherman into the leader of the world-wide church.  But he obviously can do that if he wants.  More likely, Jesus wants to do in you what he did in Peter.  Transformation.  Transformation of the heart, transformation of the mind, of the soul, of the body.

How is Jesus at work in your life?  What does he need to restore in your life? How is he calling you to serve him?

He doesn’t call everyone The Rock, but I suspect he has a nickname for you too.  His name for you might surprise you.  It might take you a while to feel it suits you.  But in time you find it will fit perfectly.

 

Is your church keeping you from loving one another?

23 Dec

Yesterday we finished The Advent Conspiracy series.  Over the past four weeks we have been challenged to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and yesterday Love All.

All?  That can seem impossible.  If we see the extreme difference between ourselves and others, it can seem like a chasm we could never cross and don’t want to.  People can be so hard to love.  The people we just don’t like or find offensive or beneath us or disgusting.

But everyone was beneath Jesus.  Imagine the gulf he had to cross!  It was incalculable.  And yet there he is, becoming human. Born as a baby into the lowest of circumstances.  And not only that, dying for us.

If he went the ultimate distance for us, we have a great impetus to cross that gulf for the people in our world.

Consider this:

What does that look like?  To grow in love?  Especially loving the unlovely?

Jesus told his disciples that we should be known for how much we love one another.

A question that I have been wrestling with is this: Does an institutional church keep us from loving one another?  Let me explain a bit more.  An institutional church is heavy on structures, programs, building-centered.  The answer to nearly every need, whether it be “how do we make disciples” or “how do we reach the poor” is a program.  The conclusion is that if church is about programs, then being a good Christian is about showing up at programs.

Have a need? Here’s a class!  Want to be a good disciple? Show up at the program.  Reach the needy?  Start a ministry.

But what about relationships?  “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Look at the early church in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. Love for one another was the focus.  They were especially generous toward those in need!  How far will we go to show our love for those in need?

A skeptical world needs to see us practice what we preach, and that is primarily love.

Who do you feel is unlovable in your life?  Will you reach out to them like this man?: