Tuesday, 12 December 2017

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” – Acts 8:36

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 12, 2017): Acts 8

Franchises can be a hard way to make a living, especially if you are a creative individual. Franchises tend to want to steal away that creativity. Everything has to be done in a precise manner. The dream of the franchise is to make every one of its locations the same. Visiting a McDonalds in Miami, Florida, or Toronto, Ontario, Canada, or in London, England, according to franchise logic, should be as close to the same experience as possible. There should be no differences in the menu; the d├ęcor should be highly similar if not identical, all so that the franchise can deliver the expected experience to the customer who walks in the door. Yes, in a global franchise there are local differences, but if at all possible, these are to be minimized, no matter the cost.

Essentially the Christian church, at this point in time, was an unofficial franchise of Judaism. It was unofficial because the Jews did not give its approval to the Christians to exist, and yet it was a franchise because it was understood that to be a Christian, one had to first become a Jew. This is the reason why the act of circumcision became such an essential issue in the early church. Circumcision, for a male, was part of the “cost of entry” into the Jewish faith. So as long as Christianity remained a franchise of Judaism, circumcision, and adherence to the food laws and the purity laws of the Jews was part of what it meant to be a Christian. All of this would change with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), but as Philip meets with the Ethiopian eunuch, all of these expectations were still in effect.

So, as the eunuch stops by some water and asks Philip “What can stand in the way of me being baptized?” the answer is simple, at least for a Jewish franchise. It is found in Deuteronomy – No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1). The fact that the Ethiopian Eunuch was a eunuch was enough to disqualify the official from identifying with the Judaism – and by extension, the Christian Church. Baptism was forbidden by the Mosaic Law.

Of course, Philip didn’t see it that way. The Christian Church was so much more than just a Jewish franchise. There was a radical hospitality evident within the fledgling church, and the early Christians appeared hesitant to keep anyone out, which apparently included eunuchs. It is this hospitality that should be an essential part of who we continue to be, especially as we draw nearer to Christmas. I am reminded of something that Rachel Held Evans wrote.  

"Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder if the best thing that could happen to this country is for Christ to be taken out of Christmas--for advent to be made distinct from all the consumerism of the holidays and for the name of Christ to be invoked in the context of shocking of forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. The Incarnation survived the Roman Empire, not because it was common but because it was strange, not because it was forced on people but because it captivated people" (Rachel Held Evans).

Evans describes who it is that we are supposed to be – a community that is evidenced by shocking forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. It was these three things that Philip gave to the Ethiopian eunuch.  It should still be what anyone receives when they come into contact with the Christian Church, our essential nature summed up in forgiveness, hospitality, and love.      

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 9

Monday, 11 December 2017

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. – Acts 7:57-58

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 11, 2017): Acts 7

Plato wrote, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The play on the word “light” sums up much of our existence. As kids, we are afraid of the monsters that lurk in the dark as we are heading for our beds. We need light. Maybe not too much light, but some. As we get older, we begin to recognize that those monsters are real. But rather than fearing the monsters, we begin to fear the light that reveals them. We want to be kept in darkness so that we don’t have to confront the monsters that often reside inside of us.

I have to admit that I struggle with the story of Stephen on every side. It is a story that is filled with darkness. Stephen speaks truth to the Sanhedrin, but the religious leaders of the first century run from that truth, eventually stoning this saint of the early church. But as I read the story, I can’t put all of the blame on the religious leaders. Stephen may have been filled with the Holy Spirit and enjoying the favor of God, but the story makes him sound petulant and antagonistic. Not once does he place any blame for the death of Jesus on himself, even though the whole Jesus incident had villains that inhabited every corner of the event. The Jewish leaders and the mob were guilty as they clamored for Jesus’s death and the Roman leaders were guilty because they were willing to kill Jesus just as a way to attempt to keep the peace. But the early Jesus followers disappeared. Their guilt was in preferring to stand in the dark rather than confronting the monsters that threatened the nation and everything in which they believed. As Stephen stands in front of the religious leaders, it seems that a recognition that even he had failed at the time of the crucifixion might have changed the whole tenor of the proceedings. Instead of poking his finger at the religious leaders shouting “You killed him,” a change to “We killed him, and now we have a chance to make up for what we have done” might have made all of the difference. Even Stephen’s comment about the way the Jews had received the prophets of history could have, and maybe should have, reflected the fact that our general reaction when confronted with the light of truth, which the prophets brought with them, was to hope for darkness.

But if there is a light in the story, it is in this thought; approving all that was going on was a young man named Saul. Saul is not a light yet, but this is our first introduction to the man who will shape the theology of early Christianity with his letters written to the various churches all across his known world. As stones are being hurled at Stephen, we are still about three years from his conversion experience on the Damascus Road, and it will still be almost twenty years before he will become a Christian evangelist and letter writer, yet still the hope, and the light, is present in the story. This man left guarding the coats is a future light for the truth and a man who will find himself executed for trying to share that light, instead of letting us hide from our monsters in our darkness.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 8

Sunday, 10 December 2017

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. – Acts 6:7

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 10, 2017): Acts 6

We react with anger as our first option. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, if we disagree, we do so angrily. Angela Lansbury weighs into the sexual harassment controversy with words that we don’t think we agree with, and we respond with anger. We blame her and her generation and her beliefs without once asking what it is that she meant by her comment. We lift one phrase out of a broader commentary and ignore all of the rest of what she had to say.  Eugene Peterson makes a comment in favor of gay marriage (marginally), and we attack his reputation, his ability to sell books, and make a commitment that no one will ever read “The Message” again in our churches. No one asks the question of clarification; we just attack.

For me, these are some of the disturbing things about life. If we never have the discussion, how can we learn? If blame and accusation are the only tools we have in our communication bags, how can we work toward peace and unity in our world? We can’t – not until we learn to communicate better.

I have to admit that neither Angela Lansbury nor Eugene Peterson are from “my generation,” and yet I will defend their ability to weigh in on the issues of the day. After 92 years (Angela Lansbury) and 85 years (Eugene Peterson) both have earned the right to be heard - really heard – without our anger getting in the way. Even if we disagree, we can do so privately. They have earned at least that much.

Of course, part of our anger is that they might just be speaking truth from the other side of the discussion. The truth usually exists somewhere between them and us. I know that we do not want to admit that. I can’t imagine a hotter topic right now than LGBTQ issues in the church, which includes gay marriage. What frightens me is the polarization that even the suggestion of this topic produces in Christian circles. And, to be brutally honest, there are people that I highly respect on both sides of the debate. I see the Holy Spirit in the actions of those on both sides of the agenda, and that is terrifying. But I believe that what God is trying to do is to lead us away from our anger and into a discussion with each other. We need to begin the conversation together if we are ever going to arrive at the truth.

There was a racial problem in the early church. The needed and promised support was going to the Jewish widows, but not to the Greek widows. The apostles, who were Hebrew, needed to find a solution. And so they appointed seven leaders with Greek-sounding names. Were they actually Greek? We don’t know. Some argue that there were Hebrews with Greek names included in the group. But there is at least the appearance that a conversation was started between the Hebrew and Gentile church, with leadership from both sides available and working toward a solution. Was there anger between the two parties? Most definitely. But that anger dissipated in the presence of real conversation. It always does, but first, we need to be ready to talk.      

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 7

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. – Acts 5:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 9, 2017): Acts 5

I love to read Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels. I think what I like the most is that there is a clear differentiation between good and evil. This distinction has to exist in all stories; it is what heightens the tension at the climax of the tale. But in a King or Koontz thriller the difference between good and evil somehow seems more apparent than it is in other novels that I might read – maybe because both authors often write about a spiritual good and evil that goes beyond our human natures.

In real life, good and evil are not quite that clear. Often we only recognize the good when it is compared with the evil, and only really see evil when it is compared with the good. We have a remarkable ability at self-deception that can sometimes even cause us to declare what is good, evil, and what is evil, good.

This verse serves as a connector between two short biblical stories. It is unfortunate that we have decided to place a dividing line, in the form of a chapter break, between the stories because the stories are meant to be read together. The first story illustrates how the early church decided to share everything together. As an example of this selfless sharing, we are introduced to a man who will become one of the key figures in the early church – Barnabas, the son of encouragement. His real name is Joseph, and we are not told where his nickname came from, but all through the story of the early church, Barnabas is described as a man who lives up to the meaning of his name; he is all of the encouragement that his name implies him to be. There is no doubt that Barnabas received praise from a grateful church for his decision to sell his land and give the proceeds to the fledgling Christian community.

Which leads us to the second story, one that is intended to stand in contrast to the story of Barnabas’s sacrifice. In this story, the main characters are Ananias and Sapphira.  Like Barnabas, they also sold a piece of land. Unlike Barnabas, they wanted to gain the glory without at least as much of the sacrifice. Ananias and Sapphira lied to make their gift sound like it was the same as Barnabas’s. And that was the problem. In contrast with the story of Barnabas, the lie makes all the difference. The two stories highlight the good in the one and the evil in the other. If they had have been honest, there was nothing wrong with the gift of Ananias and Sapphira. But the lie that they told made all of the difference, and highlighted how unlike Barnabas they really were.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 6

Friday, 8 December 2017

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. – Acts 4:12

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 8, 2017): Acts 4
During the old “The Lone Ranger” shows there always seemed to be that moment when the bad guys were caught and handed over to the proper authorities, and while they were locking the criminal up, The Lone Ranger and his faithful friend Tonto ride off into the sunset. It was usually at this point that someone asks the question that we had all been waiting for – “Who was that masked man?” The response to the question is usually something like, “I don’t rightly know his real name, but around these parts, he is known as The Lone Ranger.” The Lone Ranger decides to keep his identity a secret because his job has just begun and he has a lot of trails to follow. But that doesn’t change the fact that if you are looking for justice in his part of the fictional old west, that justice comes from the one called “The Lone Ranger,” whoever he might be.
As Peter speaks before the authorities, he makes a judgment that has come to characterize the belief of the Christian Church. We all need to be saved, the comment here is universal, and it includes everyone who is hearing Peter speak, as well as Peter and John themselves, and that the needed salvation can only come through the name of Jesus. Sometimes we forget both sides of the message. First, we all stand in need of being saved. The condition is universal, and it includes those inside of the faith as much as it does those outside. There is never a moment when we stand outside of that need to be saved. And, second, salvation always comes through Jesus.
However, sometimes we get hung up on the idea that a name saves us. Some mistakenly argue that there is power in the name, believing that the name is a charm which possesses magical powers. I have heard the argument that praying “in the name of Jesus” is like placing the correct signature at the bottom of a check. Somehow, in this kind of theology, the name of Jesus becomes like the word “abracadabra,” a magical incantation is spoken to make the magic real.
But what is intended by Peter’s words is not that the name of Jesus is magic, but that the person of Jesus is all important. We can call Jesus by any other name, and salvation is still only through him. Everyone who will be saved will be saved by Jesus. And if those who do not believe or do not know the name are saved, they will still be saved by the person of Jesus. Call him what you will or believe what you will, salvation only flows through him. I am convinced that Jesus reveals himself to people in times of stress and the only thing they can say is “who was that masked man?” We know who he is, and his name is Jesus.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 5

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. – Acts 3:7

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 7, 2017): Acts 3
Faith. The intangible cousin of belief that allows us to move forward in many areas of our lives in spite of an absence of concrete evidence that something is real. I have faith that Russia and the United States will be able to find a diplomatic solution to their differences, even though at times the leaders of either country seem utterly incapable of reasonable thought. I have faith that we will be able to find a long-term solution to global climate change in spite of all of the dire warnings coming from scientists. There is no concrete evidence that I am right in either case, but I choose to have faith, to be a person of faith, even when it is in something as frail and inconsistent as the human community.

In religious circles, we often speak of faith as being a pre-requisite to a move of God. Do you want to experience a healing in your life, then have faith that God can heal. Do you need a miracle, then have faith that God will accomplish that miracle in your midst. Sometimes faith seems to be like wishing hard for something, hoping that it will come true.
Faith is necessary for Christians, but sometimes I think that we misunderstand why. We believe in a God, through faith, when all evidence points to there not being a God. Faith says that ‘all things work together for good (we have to get rid of the idea of “my good”) for those who love God, even though that “good” we may never see. Faith is in being able to see God even in our worst circumstances and believing that his presence makes a difference. But what faith is not is a magic formula in which we get whatever it is that we might want.

And faith healing – just don’t go there. The reality is that God heals who God heals. I have faith that there is a purpose in the workings of God, but I know people of great faith who have never experienced the healing touch of God. They have suffered through life facing illness and disadvantage, and yet their faith has never wavered. They understood, by faith, that there was a purpose in everything that was happening in their lives – and they were okay with where God had placed them, even though that place was not where they wanted to be.
And I know of people without faith who have experienced God’s healing touch. The man who sat at the Gate called Beautiful was one of those. Consider the story. He is begging for money. All he wants is money. He asks Peter and John for money. Peter and John ask him to look at him, and the man raises his head and pays attention to them expecting to get some money. Then the miracle happens. God doesn’t give the man the money he is looking for; he heals his bones so that he can walk. According to our faith theology, we would expect that the next thing to happen would have been that the man tries to stand up – or even better, that he leaps to his feet, having the faith that what Peter and John have spoken has become a reality.

But that isn’t what happened. The truth is that the man seems a little bewildered by the entire ordeal. He was expecting money. What is this whole thing about walking? He has never walked. And, by the way, even the great rabbi Jesus has passed through this gate and yet he still was not healed.
There is faith in the story; it just doesn’t belong to the man sitting by the gate begging for money. Faith is in the possession of Peter and John. And as the healed man continues to sit there, they pull him to his feet. The man’s feet and ankles become instantly healed. He didn’t ask to be healed, and he didn’t expect to be healed. But that did not stop God from healing him, even though the man had an absence of faith.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 4

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. – Acts 2:6

Today’s Scripture Reading (December 6, 2017): Acts 2

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted a picture of the moon with the caption “A Lunar Eclipse flat-Earther’s have never seen.” The image shows the moon with the shadow of something that looks like it could be a giant pencil – or, for Tyson, the suggestion of a flat-earth – separating the top of the moon from the bottom. Tyson’s image is intended to poke fun at all those who steadfastly believe that the earth is flat, regardless of what Tyson and a vast majority of others regard as overwhelming evidence that the earth is round like a ball. And despite the overwhelming evidence, it seems that some are willing to take their lives into their own hands to launch themselves into the sky on homemade rockets to snap a picture of a vast, flat earth.A Lunar Eclipse flat-Earther’s have never seen.A Lunar Eclipse flat-Earther’s have never seen.

Oscar Wilde said that “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” We have the extraordinary capability to make substantial commitments to almost any philosophy – including a belief in a flat-earth. During the American civil war, people died protecting the right to own slaves, yet few today would consider that a worthy or true cause. And yet, we live, and we often die over things that are not worthy of us.

Enter Christianity; this belief in a man who lived, taught, and died for the idea that not only did God exist and that he created everything that we know, but that he loved us, his creation, enough to send his Son into the world to die as payment for everything that we have done wrong. A belief that says that, in the end, we will be able to find peace and forgiveness with the one who created us because of the death of this one man. For many, the idea is as ridiculous as the idea of a flat-earth. God does not seem to have a place in our post-modern society. And yet, as much as learn and grow greater in our knowledge – there is still things that we do not understand; unknowns that still only a God understanding can fill.

Jesus died on a cross. But Wilde is right. “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” Maybe that is why his coming seemed to be accompanied by unexplainable miracles. This one, on the day of Pentecost, was one such miracle. It is a miracle of hearing, not of speaking. Everyone heard the disciples in their own native language. Once more, God showed himself willing to step into our space and verbalize a message in a language that we could understand. Once more, God had shown his love to us. And maybe the greatest miracle, and the best explanation, of God happens when we take that love, given freely to us, and share it without reservation with each other.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Acts 3