Tag Archives: Apostle Paul

God’s People, part 280: Believers

Read Acts 28:11-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.”  (Romans 15:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

The Appian Way

Part 280: Believers. It is often hard for us, as modern Christians, to picture what early Christianity was like. Too often, we think of an old-time religion where everyone got along, agreed with each other, and were monolithic in their understanding of Christ and his mission. I pray, that as we have been journeying through the New Testament in the Bible, you are seeing first-hand that Christians did not have it as together as we might have imagined.

Even among the Twelve Apostles, there were differences in understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Peter, at first, sided with James’ brother that Gentiles could not be included into the The Way unless they first converted to Judaism. Jesus was a devout Jewish rabbi and he came to the Jewish people; therefore, Gentiles needed to first accept the God of Israel and convert to the faith of Abraham and the Laws of Moses, before they could truly follow the Messiah.

It actually does make sense when you give it thought from the perspective of Jewish followers of Jesus. Yet, Paul vehemently disagreed with James and the Apostles that supported him. For Paul, a former Pharisee, the question did not start with Moses’ Laws. Yes, for Jews (including Paul), those laws were sacred and holy and vital to the Jewish faith. Also, it is true that God made a covenant with the Jewish people at the base of Mount Sinai, where he gave them the Torah (aka the Law). With that said, the covenant made to Abraham predated the Torah, and it was in that covenant that God promised to bless ALL THE NATIONS as a result of Abraham’s faith.

Thus, it is FAITH that mattered most. It was FAITH from which we were saved. It was FAITH to which the Law pointed. Those who live in FAITH in Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law, are SAVED by virtue of their faith in God’s only Son, just as Abraham was saved by virtue of his faith in the only true God, as opposed to the Law. This was what Paul taught to the Gentiles, that it was their faith that saved them. That they were included into the family of God through their faith in Jesus Christ.

Truthfully, in today’s Scripture, we see the fruit of Paul’s labor. In their travels beyond Malta, Paul and his fellow travelers came across more Gentile believers in Jesus Christ. When a south wind blew their ship to the coast of Puteoli, which is now modern day Pozzuoli (a city and commune of the Metropolitan city of Naples, Italy), Paul, fellow travelers, and crew were greeted by a group of believers who invited them to stay with their group for a week.

From there, they traveled to Rome and were met by Roman believers who traveled the Appian Way and met them in the Forum. The Appian Way was an extremely vital Roman road that was not only well traveled, but was the very road 6,000 slaves were crucified along following the defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC. Even more believers joined them at the Three Taverns.

These believers came because of their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for Paul who had corresponded with them. Paul had not ever been to Italy or Rome, yet, it was his advocacy for Gentile inclusion that had helped churches form in places that he had yet to travel. Their faith in Jesus Christ and their inclusion into the family of Christ is what empowered them to meet Paul and care for him. Luke tells us that Paul found encouragement in their presence and thanked God for them.

The fact of the matter is this, Christian fellowship is more than just a friendly gathering of like-minded people. I am sure that Paul could have found theological or intellectual differences between those believers and himself. What mattered most was their common FAITH in Jesus Christ as Lord. That is what bonded them together in Paul’s time of need.

We, as Christians, ought to be reminded that our common FAITH goes a lot further than our differences. We have been included into God’s family through Jesus Christ our Lord and, truthfully, it is through Christian fellowship where we become encouraged and invigorated to carry on in the mission and ministry of Christ, no matter what our circumstances are. This is why being a part of a Faith Community is SO IMPORTANT. We were not created to be islands, but to be in communion with fellow believers, who share and encourage our FAITH.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“God is so unique in giving His people ways to fellowship, witness, and remember what a mighty and merciful God He is.” – Monica Johnson

PRAYER
Lord, help me to open myself to Christian fellowship, that I might fully live into my Christian faith. Amen.

God’s People, part 278: Julius

Read Acts 27:1, 3

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 278: Julius. The previous few devotions have followed Paul from the Temple of Jerusalem through a couple of years of imprisonment and trial in Caesarea. We learned that Paul had not only used his Roman Citizenship to his advantage in terms of fair and just treatment under the law, he also used it to appeal his case to Caesar’s court in Rome.

This does not, by the way, mean that Nero Caesar (who was emperor at the time) would be the one hear his case; rather, appealing to Caesar meant simply that he wanted his trial to take place in Caesar’s court in Rome, where judges representing Caesar would hear Paul’s case. While it is possible that Caesar might have heard Paul’s case, it is very improbable that he had any personal invlovement.

Still, once the appeal had been made, Festus had only one thing to do and that was to send Paul to Rome. Of course, the quickest and least expensive way to transport a prisoner from Jerusalem to Rome was via the Mediterranean Sea. That is why Judaea was so important to Rome, because of its strategic location along the coast of the great sea.

Thus, Paul was put under the care of Captain Julius, who was to transport him on his ship from Judaea to Rome. I want to pause their for a split second. The number one responsibility of Julius was to ensure the safe arrival of Paul to Rome so that he may be tried in the Roman courts. Should Paul have pulled any shenanigans and escaped, Julius’ life would have been forfeit. It was NOT okay to fail Caesar.

So, it is curious to see how friendly Julius was with Paul. In fact, friendly does not do justice to the way that Julius treated this prisoner. He was not only kind to him, but showed him an exorbitant amount of respect and TRUST. For instance, while they were docked at Sidon, Julius allowed Paul to leave the boat and be visited and tended to by his friends.

If Paul had escaped, it would have been not been good for Julius; yet, the captain trusted Paul NOT to escape. This shows what a man of honor and integrity Paul must have been. Julius trusted him so much that he was willing to let Paul leave the ship to spend time with friends. Paul, as it were, would not forget that kind act of trust.

We do not know if Julius ever became a Christian or not. The chances are that he didn’t; however, Paul respected him and his entire crew. During a major storm, Paul not only comforted them, but assured them that God had shown him in a vision that NONE of the crew would be harmed. As it turned out, all of the crew indeed did survive the shipwreck. No one was harmed or died, just as Paul promised.

So, what do we make of this? Simple. Kindness goes along way. In regard to Paul, he was a person of honor and integrity and Julius could tell that about him, just as one knows that they are going to instantly click with someone they’ve just met. In regard to Julius, he was willing to give Paul his trust and, as a result, Paul was able to be cared for.

In Paul and Julius, we see models for how we ought to be. Paul shows us that we ought to be people of honor and integrity. Julius, though he may not have recognized it, placed his trust in God and did what he believed was right and just for Paul. His kindness not only blessed Paul but, in the end, it became a blessing to his entire crew. Let us, therefore be a blessing to others through our honor, integrity, and kindness through placing our trust in God and treating others as we would like to be treated.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; let us now commit it to life.” – Edwin Markham

PRAYER
Lord, help me to live by your golden rule, to be a person of integrity and honor, and one who shows kindness to others. Amen.

God’s People, part 275: Roman Citizen

Read Acts 22:22-29

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!””  (2 Corinthians 5:20, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 275: Roman Citizen. We’ve discussed Paul at length throughout Acts. Most of the Acts of the Apostles is focused, in fact, on Paul and his mission to the Gentiles.  We know that Paul was a devout Jew, a former member of the Pharisees, and a former persecutor of Jesus’ earliest followers. We know that when he “converted” to belief in Jesus Christ, he did not convert from one religion to another; rather, he saw Jesus as the the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Jesus Christ, for Paul, is how Abraham’s faith would become a blessing to all nations. It was through Jesus Christ as Messiah that all nations would confess and accept Lord and Savior.

For Paul the Christian faith was the Jewish faith. Christianity was not a separate religion, but the SAME religion. Of course, the Jews who disagreed with Paul saw it very differently; however, Paul was born, lived, taught, and died a devout Jewish theologian. In his very letters, he indicates just how Jewish he thought he was.

Yet, there is another aspect of Paul we have not discussed. Paul was not only a diaspora Jew from Tarsus, the capital city in the Roman Province Cilicia, but he was actually born a Roman Citizen. There are varying reasons suggested that could explain how Paul was born a Roman citizen. One such reason is that Tarsus was a freed city because it had aided Octavian (aka Caesar Augustus) and Antony in the civil wars and thus they were freed and considered to be a Roman city. Thus, most who were born within it were considered to be citizens of Rome.

There are other ways in which one could become a Roman citizen, such as performing a vital service for Rome or by purchasing citizenship at a hefty cost. In fact, the commander in our Scripture reading today said that he had purchased his citizenship; however, Paul, stated to the commander that he had, in fact, been born a Roman citizen. This proved, for Paul, to be quite a convenient fact that literally saved his hyde from abuse and torture.

The only reason Paul even mentioned his citizenship of Rome was because the commander had ordered him to be whipped. As a Roman citizen, Paul was afforded rights that non-citizens were not granted. He could not be punished prior to a fair trial and, as we will see later on in another devotion, as a Roman Citizen Paul had the right to appeal his case to the emperor.

Here’s the point that can be taken from the fact that Paul acknowledged his Roman citizenship. First, we do owe our allegiance to the government in which we live in. There is nothing wrong, for instance, for a Christian to also acknowledge and work within the confines of his or her earthly citizenship. In fact, under normal circumstances, that is how we ought to work. There is nothing wrong, even, with taking a healthy pride in where one is from.

With that said, Paul did not boast about his citizenship, nor did he use it to place himself above anyone else. First and foremost to Paul, he was a citizen of the Kingdom of God. He was of heaven even though he lived on earth. He saw his earthly dwelling as a diplomatic appointment, and he reminded all Christians that we were on Earth as God’s ambassadors.

Finally, given our divine appointment as ambassadors, we MUST remember that we ultimately represent Jesus Christ. What that means is that if our government calls us to do something that is against Jesus Christ, our allegiance is to Christ ALONE. Those who hold up Romans 13:1-7 as an absolute mandate to follow the government do so devoid of the context set in Romans 13:8-14. Therefore, Romans 13 is NOT a mandate to absolutely follow government; however, it is a mandate to follow government when doing so does not conflict with Jesus Christ.

Let us, therefore, remember that Christ is King and our mandate is to FOLLOW HIM. Being a law abiding citizen does, overall, honor Christ. With that said, we are called to follow Christ at all costs, even if it means disobeying our earthly rulers. Let us be a people who grow, like Paul, to understand when and when not to embrace our worldly citizenship so that we may further witness to the love of Christ and his supreme reign in the coming Kingdom of God.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
We are appointed as ambassadors of heaven, which means we should be representing Christ to the world around us.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to grow in my ambassadorship so that I may fully represent you in all that I do. Amen.

God’s People, part 273: Challenging Church

Read Acts 20:17-38

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem.” (2 Corinthians 8:4, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 273: Challenging Church. As a pastor, I don’t talk about this much because I feel it can be a sort of self-serving pity party and, truthfully, serving Christ through serving the church is exactly what I have been called to do. In fact, I love what I do. With that out there, let me say this: the Church is challenging to serve. Deeply, profoundly, challenging. Rewarding? Sure! Absolutely. Still, with all of the “they will know we are Christians by our love” hymns aside, the Church can be a raw, messy, painful, and even brutal gauntlet at times.

This is true for being a part of the Church and/or serving in leadership positions, let alone pastoring a church. This is made all the more clear by today’s Scripture reading. In it, Paul was about to leave the Church in Ephesus, with whom he had spent the past three years with. He felt the call to go to Jerusalem and to share with the Church there all the things God had been doing in terms of his mission to the Gentiles. Yet, he knew that this encounter with the Church in Jerusalem was going to be met with great resistance. He had been haunted with visions of being beaten, imprisoned and, more than likely, dying.

To the Ephesian Church, prior to his departure, he said this: “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead”  (Acts 20:22-23, NLT). He continued on to say, “And now I know that none of you to whom I have preached the Kingdom will ever see me again”  (Acts 20:25, NLT).

We find a clue as to why in one of Pauls’ later, and most important letters, which he wrote to the Church in Rome while in Corinth. It may seem odd that he would journey further West to go back East; however, during his last missionary journey Paul was going church to church in order to collect the offerings that he promised the Jerusalem church. These offerings were, in part, a peace offering as the Jerusalem Church did not always see eye to eye with Paul. It was his way of saying, Llook, these Gentile churches, of which you’re suspicious, support you in the way Christ would have us support each other. Will you show your continued support for them?”

But Paul, a realist, knew that the support will not come cheaply. For the Jerusalem Church, they were afraid that Paul was compromising to many of the Jewish laws and traditions in order to build up a Gentile Church. They would want proof that he still followed the Jewish laws, as they were passed down from God to Moses to them. Paul even spoke of this reality at the end of his letter to the Romans, “Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem” (Romans 15:31, NLT).

How painful this must have been for him. Paul was a Jew to his core. He never rejected his Jewish faith. His only “conversion” had happened in his recognition of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; yet, this Jewish Messiah had appeared to him and changed him and appointed him the Apostle to the Gentiles. The truth is, that when Paul reached Jerusalem with his donation, they did not accept it.

Luke recorded that James, Jesus’ half-brother, responded to Paul in this manner, “Here’s what we want you to do. We have four men here who have completed their vow. Go with them to the Temple and join them in the purification ceremony, paying for them to have their heads ritually shaved. Then everyone will know that the rumors are all false and that you yourself observe the Jewish laws” (Acts 21:23-24, NLT).

In other words, the Jerusalem leaders did not accept Paul’s gift; rather, they asked him to use it by paying for the four men and himself to undergo the purification ritual in the Temple. Paul, of course, did so to show them his love and Christian brotherhood. The second he was seen in the Temple, he was arrested by the Jewish authorities, and spent years in prison before being sent to Rome after Paul appealed to the Emperor. Paul’s journey, and his life, ended in Rome.

How painful it can be to be a part of the church. How even more difficult it can be to lead it. Why? Because the Church is made up of people like you and me. We each have our subjective perspectives, opinions and beliefs. Sometimes those align, but other times the collide. And religious beliefs are some of the most personal and intimate beliefs we hold. They inform us our identity…who we are at our core.

Yet, Paul’s example should challenge us. We should not avoid being a part of the Church simply because it is challenging; rather, what separates Christians from other human groups and institutions, is our willingness to persist in trials together for the sake of unity, charity, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the glory of God, and the coming Kingdom! All groups and institutions of human beings have conflict, it’s how we LOVE one another in spite of that conflict that proves we are Christ’s. Let us be reminded of Paul when we are burned by the church and despairing. Perhaps God has you exactly where you need to be to be an agent of change and an ambassador of love!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“They will know we are Christians by our love.” – Fr. Peter Scholtes

PRAYER
Lord, help me to love, especially when it is most difficult to do so. Amen.

God’s People, part 272: Eutychus

Read Acts 20:7-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”  (1 Corinthians 2:13, NRSV)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 272: Eutychus. As a pastor, today’s Scripture reading is not a surprising one. Yes, there was pretty fabulous miracle that took place and all of that jazz; however, it’s what led to the need for a miracle that I am referring to. Before I dive into that, let me just say that one does not think of comedy when one thinks of the Bible. Typically, comedy seems a bit irreverent and not “holy” enough for our Western sensibilities.

I may sound like I am being facetious; however, I am not. I once was a at Methodist Annual Conference where the presiding bishop admonished people for laughing during “holy conferencing”. Now, to be fair, it’s not that this bishop viewed laughter as unholy, but rather he wanted to the atmosphere of the conference to be serious and raucus. Still, when we think of the Bible, we have the same thoughts as this bishop did with conferencing: it should be read and taken reverently.

That is what is great about Acts 20:7-16. It is a mythbuster if I have ever seen one. What do I mean by that? I mean that it is one of the more comical verses in the entire Bible, let alone New Testament. That a man died and needed to be resurrected is certainly not funny. That’s tragic. How he died, on the other hand, that is comical. It is also very relatable to both preacher and congregant.

Let me explain. In Acts 20:7-16, we hear of a story where the Apostle Paul, not really known for his brevity (minus his epistle to Philemon), was delivering a sermon at a household worship service. Well, this sermon started following supper (including Holy Communion) and continued onward till midnight. Okay, maybe that is not so relatable. I would smite myself if I carried on that long.

Well, Luke tells us Paul carried on this long because he was leaving the next day and let’s just say he was “caught up in the Spirit”. Sadly, as much as he tried, Eutychus fell asleep. I mean how dare him, right?!?!?! I mean which one of us would dare fall asleep during a 4 or so hour sermon. I mean, geesh!

Truth be told, as a pastor, I have seen countless people fall asleep during my sermons which average at about 16 – 18 minutes, give or take. Having someone fall asleep during a sermon is certainly NOT news to any pastor. Conversely, falling asleep during a sermon is not new to anyone who has listened to a sermon, myself included.

So, here is where the story gets interesting. Eutychus happened to be sitting in the window in the upper room where they were, catching the breeze and, before he knew it, catching Zzzz’s as well. That is not the wisest place to doze of as turns out and Eutychus fell three stories from the window to his death. Again, the death part is not funny, but the circumstances around his death are hilarious! Paul literally killed someone with his long, drawn out, and clearly boring (at least for Eutychus) sermon!

Anyway, that event, you would think, was the cue for Paul to end his preaching for the night; yet, that was not the case. Instead, he went down to the Eutychus, bent over him, and picked him up in his arms saying, “No worries, he’s just asleep.” Then they all went upstairs and Paul proceeded to preach to them UNTIL DAWN! Can you imagine that? No one threw him out, told him to shut up, said, “Hey Pastor! You remember now that service is only supposed to be an hour. Cut your sermon down or I’m going too another church and bringing my money with me!”

Nope, no one evidently did that (or Luke that part out of the story). Instead, they listened to him and when the morning came, Eutychus was fine with no injuries at all! Praise God for that! Still, you may be wondering what is the point of sharing this obscure, crazy story about a long and deadly sermon. The point is this, there is NO time limit, no time constraint, no limitation at all when it comes to God’s word. When the Spirit is speaking to us, we’ll listen as long as it takes. The reason Paul was able to talk that long and the reason all but one of them were engaged so long, is because they were all in the Spirit together.

We have lost that in the modern church, by and large. Everything is run on time and expectations. Services better be only an hour, sermons no more than 10-20 minutes, not too many, but not too little hymns, and well-crafted but brief prayers. We go, we half-listen (if we listen at all) the Scripture and Sermon, we give, we sing, and then we split. This is nothing like the early church was.

I am not saying that Christians ought to listen to 10 hour sermons, or should expect to be in church all day. Nor am I saying they should expect 10-20 minute sermons and be expecting to be out in an hour to get on to “more important” things. Instead, I am saying that, like the earliest Christians, we should be expecting the HOLY SPIRIT, and nothing else. Whatever happens following the arrival of the HOLY SPIRIT, one thing is for sure, it will be MIRACULOUS.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Christians not only follow Christ, but they dwell in His Spirit, and his Spirit in them.

PRAYER
Lord, open my heart to the expectation of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God’s People, part 264: Philosophers

Read Acts 17:16-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Though the LORD is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud.”  (Psalms 138:6, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

The view of the Acropolis from the Areopagus

Part 264: Philosophers. As a person who has his BA degree in Philosophy, this has always been one of my more favorite encounters in the New Testament. Paul visiting Athens, the western philosophy center of the ancient world, is an epic example of how brilliant Paul was as an evangelist. It shows that Paul had enough cultural intelligence and competency to know how to engage people in a way that drew their attention.

Sadly, when we think of evangelism today we think of tracts being handed at random to people, we think of signs saying, “turn or burn”, and we think of religious fanatics going door to door to tell people about their Lord and Savior Jeeezusah!, without whom they’ll go to hell. Yet, when we look at Paul’s approach, particularly here in Acts 17:16-34, we see that Paul did quite the opposite.

Instead, Paul enters into Athens and the Areopagus with a measure of humility and appreciation of the culture and religion of others. That is not to say that Paul subscribes to their religious beliefs or practices, but he respects them and treats the human beings at the Temple in Athens and the Areopagus as humans created in the image of God. This is absolutely a must, and it is the approach that we see Paul employ throughout his ministry. He didn’t try to change the culture or the cultural traditions; rather, he inserted Christ into them. He invited people to believe in Christ and accept Christ, who accepted them regardless of where they were from or what their culture was or was not.

One great example of this was when he went before the council at the Areopagus and addressed the the leaders and Philosophers as follows:

“Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about” (Acts 17:22-23, NLT).

In that discourse with the “men of Athens”, Paul did not denigrate them, nor did he attack them; rather, he saw the value in their religiosity and used that at as the basis from which he shared the Gospel with them. In other words, he took the time to understand them before he embarked on a campaign to share who he was with them. He saw that they humble enough of a people to recognize that they don’t know the fullness of God. As such, he commended them on their setting up an altar to the “Unknown God”, and then proceeded to tell them about the God they did not know.

Of course, Athens being full of philosophers, Paul’s speech led to a ton of philosophical, metaphysical, and theological questions. Paul, of course, entertained those; however they did come a point when he realized that many of those philosophers were merely looking to engage philosophically and were not interested in believing Paul’s teaching on who Jesus Christ was. Again, Paul understood his audience and, instead of further arguing with them in order to force them to see things as he did, he simply walked away and did not return to entertain further useless philosophical debate.

Regardless, there were some who came to believe who Christ was as a result of Paul’s witness, including a woman named Damaris. Praise God! How awesome that Paul was able to understand and respect the culture of other people in a way that invited them to hear about Jesus in non-threatening ways. That, of course, led them to accept him. Again, praise God.

This should challenge us to really consider how we witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Do we spread “God’s love” through the bully pulpit, through Bible thumping and through a “holier than thou” approach? Or do we get to know the people we are witnessing to and, instead of trying to change their culture or who they are, bring Christ to them in a way that works for them organically and naturally. Obviously, there are certain theological and doctrinal tenets we need to hold on to; however, the best witness to Christ is to accept people as they are unconditionally and guide them to who Christ truly is. I pray we all take on Paul’s model of evangelism.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“He who is not a good servant will not be a good master.” – Plato

PRAYER
Lord, help me to have the humility to see your image in all people regardless of their beliefs or culture. Amen.

The Problem with Modern Love

Read 1 Corinthians 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7 NLT)

loveAs a Christian pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have officiated in plenty of weddings and funerals. That just goes with the territory and, quite honestly, I am always honored when people seek me out to celebrate in their mutual love, or when people request that I be with them in their times of loss and grief. After all, did not the Lord Jesus Christ do such things?

As any pastor can tell you, one of the most requested (if not THE MOST requested) Scriptures for weddings is 1 Corinthians 13. Because that scripture talks about an enduring love, people automatically link it to the marital union between two loving partners. I think that this, unfortunately, does a disservice to what the Apostle Paul was actually writing about. I can assure you that, as a self-imposed, celibate man, Paul of Tarsus was not thinking about marriage when he penned those immortal words.

As such, whenever I am asked to utilize that particular passage at a wedding, I make a point of bringing the true meaning of the text into my message before tying it into the marital covenant. This is is important because there is huge problem with modern love. What I mean by this is that the modern understanding of love is shallow at best. It is all about peaches and cream, fuzzy bunnies and puppie dogs, kisses and hugs, compliments and unconditional affinity.

This modern understanding has been propagated by enless jewelry advertisements, happily ever-after romance novels/films, motivational speakers, prosperity preachers, societal pressures, and new age and/or civic theology that renders love into an emotional experience to be had within oneself. In a nutshell, love is rendered into a feel-good, warm and fuzzy experience centered around our over-inflated egos.

We tend to see love in those who make us feel good ourselves and in those who tell us how beautiful, great, smart, and awesome we are. Conversely, we tend to not see love in anyone who disagrees with us, calls us out for being wrong, encourages us to change course, or stands in our way from getting we want. After all, how could someone possibly love us and disagree with how great we are,    right?

Let me really clear about this: LOVE IS NOT ABOUT SELF-WORSHIP! It is not about us at all. LOVE IS ABOUT GOD. In fact, GOD IS LOVE. When Paul is writing about the characteristics of love, he is actually writing the characteristics of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, despite our often misconceptions of God, Jesus revealed to us that God was patient and kind, forgiving, slow to anger, and keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never gives up, never stops being faithful, is always hopeful, and endures through all things.

God loved us so much that, in order to redeem us in that love, God became a human being and lived among us. As that human being, God taught us what TRUE LOVE is all about. Love is sacrificial, it is in service of others, it holds people accountable to who they were created to be as opposed to who they are, and it is persistent in being present with others even when to do so comes at a great cost. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God, who is love. As Christians, we ough to be the embodiment of Christ, who is Lord, and bear that LOVE out into the world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Love is not just a verb, but a noun that calls us be verbs.

PRAYER
Lord, you loved me even when I have not loved you back. Help me to model that love in my life and act it out in the world. Amen.

Just Who Do You Think I Am?

Read Romans 7:7-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NLT)

CrossRedeemedIf you were to ask any of the students I have had over the years for confirmation class, they would tell you that one of the major projects I have them do is write a theological essay on who people say Jesus Christ is, and to also write about who they believe Jesus Christ to be. This essay is based off of the two questions Jesus asked his disciples, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say that I am’” (Matthew 16:13, 15b)?

There were no wrong answers, and it wasn’t anything they were graded on. The purpose of the required exercise was two-fold: 1) To help them develop the skill of critical theological thinking and the ability to articulate the Christian faith as they have been taught it. 2) To promote critical thinking around their own experiences with Jesus Christ, as well as to give them the opportunity to express those experiences and their own understanding of who Christ is in writing to themselves. Later in life, they can look back on those answers and see how their understanding has grown over the years.

Recently, while driving, I was listening to the Christian metal band Demon Hunter’s album, “Extremist.” The first song on that album is “Death”. This song, to me, is the opposite exercise. Unlike the exercise I have my confirmation students (aka confirmands) go through, this song is not asking the listener who they think Christ is, but rather it is asking that same question in regard to all of the other influences in their lives.

Actually, the song is a reflection, in part, on the tendency to idolize people like him, as if they are some sort of paragon of perfection. With that said, I also think that this song works beyond just Ryan Clark, but other people and/or influences in our lives that we turn to in order to be “saved” from ourselves and our circumstances. In the song, Ryan Clark screams, “I’m not your gateway. I’m not your prodigal son. I’m the vile lesser-than. Just who do you think I am? I’m not your standard. I’m not your vision divine. I am not sacrificial lamb. Just who do you think I am? I am death.”

Ryan is not stating that he is literally Death, as in the Grim Reaper. Nor is he stating that he is evil or that he has no part to play in helping others. That is not what he is saying at all; rather, he is stating that ONLY CHRIST is the savior. We all, including Ryan, are sinners and we are all in need of being saved. How do I know that’s what Ryan actually meant when writing the song? Here’s what Ryan has to say about it:

‘By our very nature, we are a sinful people. It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you stand on, that will always be the case. If you don’t see it, you’re not paying attention. There is no pretending to be impervious to it. The answer is revealed in the realization of its existence, and the understanding that you are in need of forgiveness. The wages of sin is death. Eternal death. My desire is to be an instrument for this revelation, but my words alone can only point the way. I am no savior.’

Amen. We are all in need of being saved and, for those who recognize that need, salvation rests in Jesus Christ who literally HELD NO BARS in ensuring that  salvation for us, should we desire and ask for it. Our way, apart from the eternal love that is GOD in Jesus Christ, leads to death. This need not merely be in some other-worldly sense either. Just look at the wisdom and “saving plans” of human beings running amok in the world. Look at the broken relationships, the drug addiction, the abject poverty, the abuse and oppression, the genocide and the governing for SELF-INTEREST. It is clear, we humans are not saviors, but lesser-than (to use the lyrics).

We are, apart from Christ, death. Yet, as Ryan rightly points out, those of us who are saved are called to point the way to Christ, who is the revelation of God’s unconditional, saving love. We may not be the savior, but we intimately know the savior and can introduce people to our Lord and Savior. If you feel lost in your life, if you feel surrounded by dead ends and hopelessness, there is a way out of such despair. There is a way to abundant and joyful life. That way is Jesus Christ and I pray that you two get in touch. Find a pastor or someone grounded in faith who can support you in that. If you are a person of faith, be willing to be the vessel that points the least, the last and the lost to the One who LOVES and SAVES THEM beyond all measures!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“He that falls into sin is a [human]; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasteth of it, is a devil.” – Thomas Fuller

PRAYER
Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. May I always point to your saving grace. Amen.

Represent!

Read 2 Corinthians 5:13-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NLT)

imagesBack in March of 2014, a Christian film went mainstream and was shown in theaters across the country. The film was called “God’s Not Dead” and chronicled the struggle of a student in college whose philosophy professor asks him and his classmates to write, “God is Dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. Doing so, according to the professor, would get the kids out of having to dredge through the boring nonsense that is the philosophical “proofs” of God and get into the more interesting schools of philosophical thought. Of course, this professor is an antitheist and is a little more than just biased against any and all religious beliefs. An antitheist, for those who don’t know, are atheists who  believe that religion is the cause of the world’s problems, who despise religion, and who seek to “edcuate” people that religion is faulty, prehistoric superstition that needs to be eradicated!

Honestly, I was not all that enthralled with the movie, though as a philosopher I dug the academic debate the film centered on. Still, in a world where Christians are being put to death for being Christian, in a world where millions of Christians are displaced refugees because of radical governments and religious zealots, in a world where such Christian persecution exists, a student’s struggle against an extreme professor seemed a little contrived and, well, superficial. For fans of the movie, hold off on the dislike button, because I’m not done yet.

Just recently a student I know was in a science class learning about the theory of evolution. During that class, the teacher made a comment that religious people don’t believe in evolution because they choose to believe in a God that created everything as it is. Feeling that the comment was a denigration to her both as a Christian and as an intelligent student, she raised her hand and spoke up, stating that the teacher’s comment was untrue. “I’m a Christian, I believe in God, I believe that God created the world, and I have no problem with the theory of evolution. Can’t God create a world that evolves on its own without needing a puppet master pulling the strings?” She also let that teacher know that what he was doing was stereotyping her and other religious people, which in her words, “was not cool.”

This student did not lose composure, but remained respectful yet firm in her convictions and that teacher, realizing she was right, acknowledged her point and moved on with the lesson. Despite my gut reaction to “God’s Not Dead” and the theological issues I believe are inherent in that film, there is a truth that Christians are living in an increasingly polarized society that often doesn’t look kindly on religion or faith. In fact, Christians aren’t the only ones who face this, but people of all religions do.

What is important for me to stress here is that this is not a “battlecry” for Christians to rise up and take back what is “rightfully theirs.” If we read the Gospels, and the New Testament as a whole, we quickly realize that the world has NEVER been “rightfully ours.” We live in this world, but we are not of it; rather, we are ambassadors who represent Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, and we are not called to battle the world in a match of wits, or in senseless debates over who has the truth and who follows the fiction. With that said, we are called to represent the realm and the reign of God and to shine Christ’s light into this world of darkness. That is the heart of what the college student in “God’s Not Dead” was doing, and that is the heart of what the student I know was doing. She was not trying to put him down, or enter into a battle of the wits in order to disgrace him; rather, she was was shining a light on the truth of her faith and, perhaps, encouraging other people of faith in the room along the way. As Christians, Christ has called us all to lovingly stand up for the truth and be witnesses of the hope of God’s presence with us, regardless of what the world does or does not think of it. Remember that we live in this world, but we are not of it. May Christ give us all strength.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” – John F. Kennedy

PRAYER
Lord, help me to have the courage to represent Christ and to do so in a way that is honest, bold, loving, and tolerant. Amen.

The Search for the Holy Grail

Read 1 Corinthian 11:17-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26 CEB)

The HolyGrailI just recently watched the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” This has always been my favorite of the four films because it deals with Indiana Jones’ quest to find the Holy Grail. While I am sure most of you know what the Holy Grail is, for those of you who don’t the Holy Grail is the cup of which Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles drank from during the Last Supper. Indiana’s father (played by Sean Connery) had been searching for the Grail his whole life, but when he gets close to finding it he disappears. Indiana then picks up where is father left off in order to not only find the Grail but to also find his father.

Before embarking on the quest, Indy turns to his friend, Marcus Brody, and asks him if he thinks there is actually any truth to the legend of the Holy Grail. Marcus responded, “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” This statement hit me in a way it never really did before. I think as a younger person, I never fully understood the profound implication of that statement; yet, as a grown adult and a trained theologian, the proclamation is actually a revelation of the nature of who we are in Christ Jesus. This is not just some Hollywood-contrived revelation, but is a revelation we find throughout the Bible.

When we think of the Holy Grail, we think of the Last Supper, we think of the Knights of the Round Table, we think of Indiana Jones, we think of Monty Python, and some may even think of Dan Brown’s controversial work of fiction, “The Da Vinci Code.” Almost always, the Holy Grail is thought of as an object, as the cup that held the wine (aka blood) of Jesus Christ. In the case of the Indiana Jones film, the cup itself was holy and had magical powers of healing and rejuvenation as a result of Christ using it it in such a holy moment in history. In books like the Da Vinci Code, the Holy Grail is a woman (going back to Mary Magdalene) who carried on the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Again, like the cup, the woman is merely important because she’s bearing the bloodline of Jesus.

What I noticed was that, when thinking of the Holy Grail, we tend to lose the bigger picture for the smaller details. We lose the significance of the Holy Grail when we cheapen it to being a “cup” or a “womb” or anything else. Marcus Brody points us to a deep truth when he says, “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” Indeed. Jesus didn’t hold The Last Supper in order to turn a cup into an idol. Also, to get caught up in the “married Jesus” debate is to completely miss the entire point of Jesus ministry and the Last Supper.

In the act of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”, the disciples are taking Jesus into themselves and making him a part of their own identity. In other words they, in that sacred moment and from that time forward, become the Holy Grail…bearing the grace and the love of Jesus to all the world. Just as Jesus was the Son of God, we who believe in Christ and partake in Holy Communion as a public profession of our faith, take on the identity of sons and daughters of God. I am sure some of my Protestant brothers and sisters might be questioning if I am taking Communion a little too literally. While I am not, I would say that to question that is to miss the truth of the above.

Whether we believe in Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, or we believe that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a symbol of God’s grace and forgiveness for us, the fact remains that Holy Communion is a reminder that we are called to be the Holy Grails of Christ. We are called to be the vessels that bear Christ’s love in the world. We are called to be Sacramental and to be transformational. We are called to be agents of Christ’s grace and witnesses to the presence of God. Remember this the next time you partake in communion and be transformed.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” – Marcus Brody in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.

PRAYER Lord, I am your vessel fill me with your grace so that I may bear witness to your grace in the lives of others. Amen.