Tag Archives: Church

A LOOK BACK: Beyond Our Ghosts

Read John 14:1-7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in Me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NLT)

poltergeist

Following suit with the previous devotional, I just recently watched another horror movie that is actually a remake of an older, yet still popular film by the name of “Poltergeist”. While the original, written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, will always be the favorite of the two versions, it is safe to say that this new film definitely delivers. Besides, who doesn’t love a good ghost story, even if retold, to send chills up and down one’s spine.

In case you are unfamiliar with the film Poltergeist, I will give you the gist of the plot. I will be referring to the 2015 remake, since it is the one I have seen most recently. Though the characters have different names, the plot is basically the same. Poltergeist is a film that follows a family that is moving into a new home in a development somewhere out in suburbia. Following their arrival, things start to get weird. The youngest daughter, Madison, starts talking to “imaginary friends” and their son, Griff, hears the tree growling at him. All of the family members, in different ways, come across seemingly random static electricity in certain spots of the house.

While at first the weird occurances are kind of fun and intriguing, they start to become more and more vicious and scary. Little Madison, begins having nightly conversations with “the lost people” in the television set, and eventually gets lured into the closet by mysterious lights, only to disappear. Following her disappearances, her frantic family starts to hear her talking through the static-laden television set. As it turns out, she had been kidnapped by the poltergeists who are trapped in the house in a world that between this life and the next. They are desperate to find a way out of the hellish purgatory they are in, and Madison’s innocence draws them to her, thinking that she can lead them to the light (aka to rest in peace on the other side).

Without giving anymore details away, or spoiling the rest of the story, I think it is fair to say that this film is full of thrills and twists that keep you at the edge of your seat throughout. What I have noticed in this film, as well as all films about paranormal hauntings, is that while the families being affected seem to be normal, average, everyday families, there is always something dark lying under the surface.

Again, without giving away too much of the story, it becomes clear fairly early on that the Bowen family in Poltergeist is a family that is struggling to remain together. Mom is an aspiring author who cannot find the time or energy to write because of the responsibilities of motherhood. Dad is unemployed and desperately seeking employment. My guess is that they have moved to this location because they could no longer afford to live where they were. To make matters worse, dad tries to calm the stress by spending money on his kids and wife. But that only adds to the stress, because every dollar is precious.

Griff, their son, has a tremendous amount of anxiety that goes unexplained throughout the film. One can imagine that much of it is caused by the uncertainty of their family situation, but there could be more to it than that. And their eldest daughter, Kendra, is a rebellious teen who is resentful of the family situation and their move. What’s more, she is a bad influence on her younger sister, Madison, who imitates all of the things she does.

As I mentioned above, it seems that this is a prominent theme in many cases of paranormal activity, and especially in films about “hauntings”. As I sit here reflecting on that, I think that is true even beyond hauntings and other tales dealing with the world of the hereafter. We as people invite the kinds of things we project into this world. What I mean by that is this is that if we are constantly surrounding ourselves with negativity and constantly have a negative outlook, chances are we will be tormented, or “haunted” if you will, by that negative outlook. What’s more, if we allow our faith and our spiritual disicipline erode, we become even more susceptible to succumbing to hopelessness and despair.

Today’s challenge is to be a people of light, a people of joy, and a people of hope. While life in this broken world will present us its challenges, Christ has overcome the world and we can too if we rest our faith and our trust solely in Christ. If we do so, if we move from our fears, our anxieties, our trials, and the negativity we surround ourselves with to FAITH IN CHRIST, we will be set free and rise above the negativity that can seep into our lives. I pray that we all can make the move byond our ghosts to the hopeful light and love of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King

PRAYER
Lord, I cast all my fears upon you. I give to you the ghosts that haunt me. Fill me with your light so that you, and not my ghosts, will win. Amen.

God’s People, part 285: Holy Coalition

Read Romans 16:6, 8-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Now all glory to God, who is able to make you strong, just as my Good News says. This message about Jesus Christ has revealed his plan for you Gentiles, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time. But now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to all Gentiles everywhere, so that they too might believe and obey him. All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.”  (Romans 16:25-27, 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 285: Holy Coalition. In today’s Scripture, Paul continues asking the Roman church to greet the list of people he was sending. Here is the list of people that Paul sends his greetings to in Rome:

Priscilla and Aquila, Epenetus, Mary, Andronicus and Junia, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, the believers in the household of Aristobulus, Herodion, the household of Narcissus, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them.

On top of those believers, some of whom we have already discussed, Paul sent the letter with Deacon Phoebe and asked the church to treat her with the highest of honor. This list of names are each of the people Paul knows in Rome, all of whom had been partners in mission and ministry. These were the people who carried on Paul’s work in Rome and how Paul, though he had never been there, had a connection to the believers in that city.

That is quite an extrodinary network Paul had built up; however, Paul continued by also sending the greetings of others who were with him in Corinth, where he wrote the letter. Those people included: Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, and Tertius. In fact, Tertius was the one who was pyhsically writing the letter as Paul dictated it to him. It is well established that Paul’s eyesight was bad and that he had people who would write down what he dictated to them. Sometimes, as we will see in future devotions, Paul would sign the letter in his own hand to prove to the receiving community that it was, indeed, him.

What we see at the end of Romans was an extensive network of people that Paul had worked with and befriended over his many years in ministry. Nay, this was more than a network, it was a Holy Coalition of believers, revolutionizing the pasgan Western world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What an amazing legacy we see! What a lesson for us, as modern Christians, to learn.

This should remind all of us that we are a part of a Holy Coalition of believers! We are a Holy Coalition of ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! You need not be ordained in order to be a minister; you merely need to follow Jesus and deliver the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who have not come to him as their Lord and Savior.

Who are in your Holy Coalition? Who are in your network of believers that you can join with in mission and ministry? We were not created to spread the Gospel by ourselves, but as a community of believers. It is in this Holy Coalition that we find the strength and the support to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. Let us continue to build up that Holy Coalition so that more and more people come to know, love, and surrender to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
It’s hard to survive alone on an island. This is especially true in our faith.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see the value of spiritual networking, or coalition building, and of being a part of your community of believers, that I might be supported in my mission to serve you. Amen.

God’s People, part 282: Phoebe

Read Romans 16:1-2

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28, 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 282: Phoebe. Throughout church history, women have often been seen as “less than” men when it comes to the titles, functions, and duties within the church. Utilizing verses from Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and a more-than-likely misplaced margin note accidentally inserted into 1 Corinthians, the church has told women that they are not to teach men, that they are to remain silent, and submissive to male authority. This, obviously, has hurt the church in more ways than one and, it has caused many modern women (and men) to leave the church.

Sadly, this ages old interpretation of Paul’s writing is inaccurate and has damaged the church’s witness to the world. Honestly, some of the most faithful and loyal witnesses of the faith have been women. It was Mary Magdalene who first preached the Good News to the disciples, making her the Apostle to the Apostles. In fact, Paul mentions numerous women serving in all sorts of capacities in his earliest of churches.

Take Phoebe for instance. In today’s Scripture reading, we see that Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1, NLT). Cenchrea was a village in the city of Corinth. Not only does he mention her at the top of his final greeting to the Roman church, which bears much significance, but he called her a deacon, which means that she was a leader in her church. If Paul were against women in leadership, this would certainly contradict his own mindset on the issue. The fact that Paul joyfully acknowledges Phoebe is proof that he never had such a mindset.

Let’s not stop there, though. Paul goes on to write, “Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me”  (Romans 16:2, NLT). Paul mentioning her first in such a way indicates much to us. First, she was being sent as Paul’s emissary to the church in Rome, who clearly did not know Phoebe of Corinth.

Thus, he sends her with not only her name and leadership position (deacon), but he sends to them instructions on how she is to be treated as well. Deacon Phoebe was to be welcomed as one worthy of honor among God’s people. She was to be helped in whatever she needed or required, for she had been helpful to many, including Paul. There is no one else who Paul talks more highly of, in all of his letters, than Phoebe.

Phoebe was sent to deliver Paul’s letter to Rome and, with her, Paul sent an entire delegation to help her. Paul expected the men…and the women…to treat Phoebe as if it were Paul they were welcoming in. This, my friends, is more than enough evidence for us to recognize that Paul had a fairly egalitarian view when it came to serving Christ. While the majority of Pauls companions and co-workers were men, as was too be expected of the time he lived in, Paul mentions a number of women who were instrumental in leadership and in witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This should challenge us. There are many Christians today that hold a “Complimentary View” of leadership. “Complimentary” is a nice word for a tired interpretation of the Bible. It simply means that God created men for leadership, and women to be subservient to men. People will try to smooth that fact over, but that is the truth of the Complimentarianism.

We as Christians need to see that Paul was, in fact, much more egalitarian in his view of leadership. I am sure Paul did not think of it like we do, and probably would not have used those terms; however, if someone showed themselves to be a leader, filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul did not restrict them or stand in their way because of their gender. As such, neither should we. Let us all work together, women and men alike, for in Jesus Christ we are one.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Let no one deem unworthy whom God has deemed worthy.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see all through your eyes and give me the humility to treat all of your servants, women and men alike, with equality, equity and dignity. Amen.

God’s People, part 181: Rome

Read Acts 28:17-31

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, 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.

281: Rome. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there was a church already established in the city of Rome. We know that this church was not established by Paul himself; however, word of the church and their faith had reached Paul and he very much wanted to visit them. We know this from his own writings to the church in his epistle to the Romans. In that letter, he wrote:

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else…In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. 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 15:20, 22-24, NLT)

Paul’s own words tell us that he had never been to Rome before and that someone else was responsible for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to them, founding them as a church. By church, it is not meant that they had a physical location to worship at that we now commonly know as a “church”; rather, the church is the group of Christian believers that are gathered in a geographical location, who probably worshiped at multiple different houses throughout the city.

To the earliest Christians, the Church or ekklesia (Greek ἐκκλησία, pronounced eh-ck-lee-sia) means an assembly or gathering of people. It matters not where they gather, but what they are gathering for. In the Christian context, the church is a gathering of Christ followers. Thus, Paul was writing his letters to the body of Christians in the specific cities he addressed them to. In the case of Romans, Paul was addressing the body of Christ followers in the city of Rome, regardless of where they met and worshiped.

While we do not know who established the church in Rome, it is safe to believe that it was someone who may have known, or at least known of Paul. Paul writes his letter to a people he presumes will know who he is. Whether it was a close associate of Paul or some other Christian who spread the Good News there, it makes perfect sense that the Christian faith would spread quickly to the heart of the empire. After all, there was a large Jewish community within Rome and, no doubt, Christians would have traveled to, and been present in, the Jewish community in the imperial city.

Paul did eventually make his way to the believers. In our Scripture today, we see that Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial and, of course, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people while he waited. Paul was in the lion’s den, as it were, and yet he boldly proclaimed the Gospel despite his impending trial.

While Acts ends the story at Paul’s arrival, the truth is that the Gospel message would eventually cost Paul his life. More than likely, he was beheaded during Nero’s persecution of Christians. The reason was that Nero scapegoated Christians for a large fire that got out of control and burned half of Rome down. Historians contemporary to the time speculated that Nero started the fire himself; however, Christians received the blame and were put to death in the most horrific of ways, making Paul’s death look like a walk in the park.

Prior to his death, Paul was visited and cared for by friends and by other Christians in the Roman community. He was loved and cared for by his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. This should challenge us to remember that the church is just that: a community of believers who are charged with visiting and caring for each other. The church is a community of believers called to live out their love for on another, despite differences that would otherwise separate and divide them. Let us, as Christians today, remember that the mission of the church is no different now than it was then. Let us visit each other, care for each other, and love each other just as the Christians in Rome did for Paul.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Love wins. Let us be on the winning side.

PRAYER
Lord, teach me to be like Paul and the earliest Christians. By your grace, help me to love and to care for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, living into Christ’s new commandment for those who follow him. 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.

Vampire Hunters

Read Ephesians 6:11-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”  (1 Peter 5:8, NLT)

I just watched a new Netflix Original film entitled, “Vampires vs. the Bronx”, which is a comedy horror film about Vampires moving into the Bronx in order to take over the community and feed on its people. With that said, these vampires aren’t doing so out in the open; rather, they are hiding behind a real estate company that is run by a “familiar”, a human being who is promised by the vampires to be given immortality if he faithfully serves them.

The story centers around a young teenager (maybe 14 or a little younger) named Miguel Martinez, who is also nicknamed Li’l Mayor because of his desire to community organize. In fact, we first see him and his friends passing out flyers to save a local bodega (convenience store/deli), which is suffering because of people “moving out” of the community due to being bought out by a real estate company named, “Murnau Properties.” If you are a vampire fan, you will recognize that the real estate is named after F. W. Murnau, who was the director of the 1922 film, Nosferatu.

As it turns out, these business and home owners were not moving out; rather, they were being “bought out”, sold out, and then killed by the vampires. Miguel and his friends discover this and set out to stop the vampires from taking over their community; however, they find themselves grossly underprepared. Why? Let me just say, it is not because they are kids. In fact, if anything that is their greatest strength because their innocence and imaginations aren’t destroyed by adulthood.

The reason they are underprepared is because they don’t have all the tools they need to hunt and fight these vampires. They aren’t just fighting human beings behaving badly. They cannot just call the police, because they won’t believe these kids of color in the ‘hood over an establised, white real estate business. These kids are fighting SPIRITUAL forces of evil and injustice and, community organizing isn’t enough in spiritual warfare.

These kids, then, realize that though they typically avoided church and religion, they had to turn to it in order to fight these vampires. They needed to go to church, they needed to understand the power of the Eucharist (Holy Communion), they needed to rely on the power of the Cross, and the power of FAITH in Jesus Christ to defeat these foes. Suddenly, the church they saw as a boring obligation became their hope, and the priest they thought was too tough on them became their ally.

These kids learned an invaluable lesson that it takes more than activism and community organize to fight the forces of sin and evil. Spiritual warfare needs to be fought spiritually. In one of my favorite scenes, a vampire is about to kill one of the kids who, suddenly, pulls out the host and places it in the vampire’s mouth after proclaiming, “The Body of Christ”. The vampire was, at that very instant, rendered to ash.

This should challenge us to remember the importance of faith. Activism and community organizing will only ever take us so far. Why? Because people are sinful by nature and, even with the best intentions, will fail in truly setting up sinless institutions and organizations of change. What’s more, we are fighting forces that are not merely human, but are spiritual and evil in nature. In order to conquer such forces, we need to turn to the ONE who conquered sin, evil and death on the cross! Only Jesus Christ can help us overcome such forces and usher in the Kingdom of God in this world. Let us look toward Miguel and his friends as our example of why religion, faith and Jesus Christ are VITAL to changing our world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Do you rely on Jesus to resist sin, evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

PRAYER
Lord, I place my full trust in you. Hold me to this and steer me on the path of righteousness. 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.

God’s People, part 261: Jailer

Read Acts 16:16-39

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”  (Matthew 5:43-44, 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.

James Faulkner stars as Paul in a scene from in the film “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Sony Pictures) See MOVIE-REVIEW-PAUL-APOSTLE-OF-CHRIST March 22, 2018.

Part 261: Jailer. We live in such a polemical time where we often being strongly encouraged to take one side or the other. For instance, in America, one is either a Republican or a Democrat. One is either for Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. One is either antiracist or racist. The list goes on and on and on. It would be easy for me to say that we are about as divided as I have ever seen in my lifetime; however, these are not the only, nor the most, divisive times in world history.

Paul lived in a very divisive time himself. The Roman Empire eventually crumbled because of political divisiveness and, truth be told, the there was much divisiveness in the church as well. Read 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, 1, 2, & 3 John and other writings in the New Testament. In those epistles (aka letters) you will see that Paul, John and others were dealing with the polemics in the church as well.

Before I move forward with the jailer, I want to be clear that I am not making a moral judgment about any particular stance above. I am merely mentioning them because they have been the sharpest sides drawn as of the writing of this devotion. Nor am I saying that people should not stand up for what they truly believe in and are passionate about. The point of this piece is to show how the Gospel can and DOES change hearts and minds.

In our Scripture today, Paul and Silas find themselves in prison in Philippi, where they had spent time bringing the Good News to the gentiles in that city, nurturing and growing a nascent gentile church that they planted.  What happened was that Paul had cast out a demon out of a local slave girl who was being used by profiteers to make money. Due to her deliverance, she was not longer profitable for them and this caused them to grow enraged. They made legal complaints against both Paul and Silas, who were then locked up in prison.

While in prison, under the watch of a jailer, there was a great earthquake and the doors and bars were knocked a part and opened, leaving plenty of opportunitiy for Paul and Silas to escape. Instead, Paul and Silas urged all of the prisoners to stay put and not escape. This, action, may have you scratching your heads. Why not take the opportunity and get out of dodge? Well, it had the jailer scratching his head to and he was beyond thrilled that everyone was accounted for because, had they not been, he would have certainly been executed for a dereliction of duty.

We don’t know much about the jailer at all. He was most likely a local Philippian beholden to the local government there. More than likely he was a Greek gentile. No doubt, he could have cared less (initially) that Paul and Silas were in jail. They were rabble-rousing troublemakers and, besides, he had a single job to do: make sure they did not escape. Failure to do that job would have costed him his life.

By staying instead of fleeing, that caused Paul and Silas to penetrate the man’s heart. Who would do such a thing given such an opportunity. Who wouldn’t think of theselves first over a stranger, let alone an enemy. Clearly, these gentlemen thought of the jailer, valued the jailer’s life and were not the “lawless” men they had been accused of being.

Because of that, the jailer opened his heart up to the Good News of Jesus Christ that Paul and Silas shared with him. What GREAT news! They witnessed to this man and he and his whole family converted to being Christ-followers as a result! This man went from being a jailer to being a brother! This is the power of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Now, back to my preface above, this does not mean that people should not be standing up for what they believe in. I have marched and will continue to march for Black Lives, for equity, and for justice as long as I have legs and life to do so. I will stand up for the Good News of Jesus Christ, for the fact that we are all image bearers of God, and that for people to be treated equally with dignity, compassion, justice, mercy and respect. Paul and Silas were in jail for standing up for what they believe in despite the risks in doing so. That is what our Lord calls us to do as his followers.

With that said, we should also be careful that we are truly representing the Gospel when we do so. It is so easy to get sucked into the polemics, to get sucked into viewing the other as “evil” or “less than” and dehumanizing them. God is the judge of who is evil and who is not. We, on the other hand, are called to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and hold each other accountable to it out of love.

While there are many people who are jailers out there who may be on the wrong side of things, God still loves them and calls us to invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not all will accept that and we must stand our ground for Jesus regardless; however, we also might find discover Jesus Christ ACTUALLY has the power to transform hearts and minds and our faithfulness to HIM leads others such a place of transformation. In other words, while we stand against the oppressers of the world, let us still find room in our hearts to LOVE them like Christ does.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Hating an evil person is still hate and will lead us to evil; however, LOVE would have us oppose the evil of people and protect people from evil.

PRAYER
Lord, help me a bold and loving warrior for justice without losing myself to blind hate. Increase your love in my heart. Amen.

God’s People, part 255: John Mark

Read Acts 13:13; 15:37-39

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it. Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, 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.

Part 255: John Mark. Traditionally, John Mark has often attributed as the “Mark” who wrote the New Testament, also known as Mark the Evangelist. He was first introduced in Acts 12:12 as being the son of a woman named Mary. He was introduces as “John who was also known as Mark.” In that time period, it was not uncommon for Jews to have their birth name and also have a Hellenistic name as well. John was a Jewish name and Mark was a Greek name. So, this person’s name was actually John and Mark was not his surname, but another name he went by.

Still, he is known to us as John Mark to distinguish him from other Johns in named in the New Testament. John Mark was the cousin of Paul’s mentor, partner and friend Barnabas. In Acts 12:25, we find out that he returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Paul (Saul at the time), an indication that he was now working with them as a missionary.

In Acts 13:13, something inexplicable happened. We are told that, on one their missionary journeys, John Mark abruptly left the company and returned home to Jerusalem. We cannot be sure why he left as Luke never elaborated on that; however, you can feel the abruptness in the way Luke writes about it: “Paul and his companions then left Paphos by ship for Pamphylia, landing at the port town of Perga. There John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.” From there Luke carries on with Paul and Barnabas and John Mark falls out of the account for two chapters.

He’s next mentioned in Acts 15:37-39. In that passage, Paul invites Barnabas to go with him to visit the cities they’ve visited in the past to check on the believers there. Barnabas agreed to go with Paul, but he wanted to bring John Mark along. Paul strongly objected to this. It says in verse 38, “But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work.”

It is here where we get to see into the event back in chapter 13. We still don’t know why, but it becomes clear that John Mark’s abrupt exit from their missionary journey was viewed by Paul, if not Barnabas and his other companions, as a desertion. Paul felt he abandoned them and he would not have such an unreliable person joining them, for obvious reasons.

While we cannot be sure what Barnabas felt at the time that John Mark abandoned them, John was still his cousin and wanted to include him in their journey. In fact, he not only wanted to, but was sharply insistent on it. As a result, Paul and Barnabas could not come to a compromise and ended up ending their partnership. They chose to separate. We cannot really judge either one of them because, again, we don’t know the details and why Paul felt this was an unacceptable desertion; however, both felt so strongly in their opposing viewpoints that they could no longer work together. This was tragic turn of events for sure.

Still, what we, as Christians, should pull from this is the importance of being reliable and faithful to our local church community. When we commit to something, we should remain committed. We should not desert our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ and put others in the position of having to defend or oppose our involvement, as sometimes can happen.

This is not an uncommon thing in our time. Many people abandon their church family for lots of frivilous reasons. Disagreements or a disliking of the pastor, sports or other child/teen activities, wanting to sleep in, and other various things can cause people and their families to drift away from their commitment to the Church and it’s mission. People vow to serve the Christ’s church when they become members, but don’t really view that vow as binding or important. As a pastor, I have seen the hurt that causes relationally, and I have seen it also cause division in the church. What’s more, it can cause the church to fall into despair over a perceived and real decline in church family members. It is a loss the church can’t help but sincerely grieve.

Friends, this should challenge us. Why do we, as Christians, feel that our faith vows are secondary at best to the other things the world is offering? Shouldn’t that be reversed? Shouldn’t our vows to God and each other hold far more weight than personality differences, sports, laziness, and other things? Let us be challenged to return to our vows and uphold them. Let us put Christ and His church first in our lives, so that we can once again instill a foundation of faith in our children, and further the work of bringin heaven, and the reign of God, on earth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.” – James the Just (James 5:12, NLT)

PRAYER
Lord, keep me and my family on the path that leads to the fulfillment of my vows to you. Amen.

God’s People, part 254: Bar-Jesus

Read Acts 13:4-12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“A false witness will not go unpunished, and a liar will be destroyed.” (Proverbs 19:9)

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 254: Bar-Jesus. Here is another example of an obscure person mentioned in the New Testament. We don’t have much to go on in knowing who this Elymas was, except what we are told about him by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. So, in order to pull anything meaningful from this text, we need to first examine what is known.

Elymas is first introdcued as Bar-Jesus, or son of Jesus (Greek: βαριησοῦς, pronounced bar-ee-ay-soos), who is a “magician” (in Greek: μάγος, prounounced magos) and as a “false prophet” (in Greek: ψευδοπροφήτης, pronounced pseudoprophētēs). The reason I am giving you the Greek is because it is important to understanding the implications of who this man is according to the original language the Bible was written in. This Elymas, son of Jesus, was a Jew living on the Island of Cyprus and he was seemingly a spiritual advisor to the Roman governor of that island, named Sergius Paulus.

First, let’s look at Elymas name, if that be his name. In fact, Acts tells us that Elymas means magician/sorcerer/wise man, so it is likely that his real name is not even Elymas. Another important thing to grasp is that Jesus (Greek: Ἰησοῦς, pronounced ee-ay-soos) was the Greek equivalent to Joshua and it was a common Jewish name. Just because this Jewish religious adviser was known as the son of Jesus does not mean he was claiming to be the son of Jesus/Joshua of Nazareth; rather, it simply means that this Elymas was the son of a man named Jesus/Joshua. This man’s name is not what makes him suspect to Paul and Barnabas, nor is it why he’s considered to be a false-prophet.

The reason he is considered to be a false-prophet is, as far as we can draw from the text itself, is because he is falsely advising Sergius to not listen to the words of Barnabas and Saul (who, at this point, is evidently starting to use his Roman name Paul). Instead, he wants the governor to listen to him, as if he is the one truly speaking for God. In terms the title magos, it is not clear whether he calls himself that or not. Magos can be interpreted as magician, sorcerer, or even as wise man. The magi (plural for magos) in Matthew’s Gospel is often translated to wise men as opposed to sorcerers or magicians.

It seems likely to me that this term was given to him for, as a Jew, he would not call himself a sorcerer or magician. If he did, why would a God-fearing Roman governor listen to him? The term was a slight against his character as sorcerers were seen to be deceitful and false. This would seem to being consistent with his being called a “false prophet” by Luke. Thus, by calling him a magos, the author is calling into question his character. He is seen by Luke as a shady, deceitful person who has the ability to “put someone under his spell” with deceitful, yet charming, words.

With that being the best educated guess we can now discuss the conflict. Barnabas and Paul went to Cyprus to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Cypriots. While there, Governor Sergius Paulus heard of them and their miraculous deeds and invited to them to speak with him about this Jesus of Nazareth, of whom they preached. This was did not make Elymas Bar-Jesus happy because it threatened his very position as a religious advisor to the governor. Think of it this way, if Governor Paulus became a Christian, what need would he have for Bar-Jesus who doesn’t accept Jesus Nazareth as the Christ?

Thus, Bar-Jesus began to counter the Christian witness of Barnabas and Paul right in front of them. As a result, Paul called out Bar-Jesus and cursed him with the same temporary blindness that he had suffered earlier on as a persecutor of the Church. Of course, this curse acted more as a “miracle” as it was a witness to the power and presence of God being upon Barnabas and Paul. Thus, the governor instantly became a Christian believer.

I am sure that Bar-Jesus thought he was right. I am sure he felt that Barnabas and Paul were the deceivers; however, deep in his heart he had selfish motivations for believing that. While I am have no reason to presume he wasn’t sincere in his Jewish beliefs, he was also concerned about his status and position and that was, at least in part, his motivation for opposing the Good News.

This should challenge us. How many times have we rejected God’s Good News in order to hold onto our status, our positions, our friendships, our wealth, our jobs, etc.? In this age of political extremes, how many ditch the good news of Christ, or even pervert it, in order to hold on to their political worldviews and agendas? Notice that I didn’t name any specific party or affiliation. That was done intentionally, because it happense across party lines and affiliations. Let us be challenged to be open to Christ’s Good News. Let us be challenged to prioritize it over everything else, lest we find that we too have been blinded.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Without Christ, we are like the blind leading the blind.

PRAYER
Lord, have mercy on us, sinners. Amen.