Category: Acts

Toward a Theology of Economics

I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy.  I’d be interested in your comments.

Toward A Theology of Economics

Acts 5:1-11

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy

We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.

Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more.  And that’s just the latest bad news.

I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months.  I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.

My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.

So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like.  Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean.  I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.

But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy.  But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it.  I want us to think about the economy differently tonight.  I want us to think about it theologically.

Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.”  The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.

Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently

One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title.  Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists.  Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.

His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,

“As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.”

So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”  Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.

But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project.  In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.

Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books.  What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers.  Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses.   The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year.  But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour.  Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”

So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.

What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’

Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?”  Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.

I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.”  But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?  Economics is more than money.  Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money.  And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”

Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.”  Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order.  Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.

So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s.  And, we are the managers.  We’re God’s economists.

So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

So far, we’re making good progress.  We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.

But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?”  How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?

Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies.  This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%.  And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates.  But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess?  The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.”  And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression.  Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations.  I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China.  I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.

I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed.  OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day.  And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.

Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is?  Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops.  But, do you know why this is so important?  Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.

This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children.  The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home.  I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine.  So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.

An Example From Nature

Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples.  Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy.  Jesus said,

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[a]?

28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing.  And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.

A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance

Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years.  And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden.  We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year.  But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew.  And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out.  As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted.  (That’s another parable, by the way.)

God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.

And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance.  God did not plan for shortages.  We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.

We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution.  Some of us have more that the rest of us.  Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t.  But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.

God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around.  There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly.  Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on.  But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.

Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.

Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there.  But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant.  Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.

Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics.  And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves.  They want to sell you a new plant every year.  You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.

That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.

Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity

Okay, we’re making progress.  The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.

Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.

Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden.  The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15)  Not just some, or even many, but all.  Everyone who was sick got healed that day.  Exceptional generosity.

Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics.  The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.

Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation.  There is enough for all, and it is available to all.

The cross is God’s comment about economics.  The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving.  The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.

The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord.  Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven.  But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.

Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.

A Third Characteristic:  Eternal Consequences

A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences.  Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.

I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.”  My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately.  I got some amazing responses.  One respondent said,

You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.

My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”

But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.

Back To Ananias and Sapphira

Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira.  I really like this story.

In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing.  They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources.  They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings.  They just had to solve the distribution problem.

So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money.  Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most.  From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.

But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed.  So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church.  They would keep back some.  Rather than see abundance, they saw limit.  “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said.  “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”

So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”

Peter knew Ananias was lying.  So, Peter said,

“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.

At that, Ananias fell down dead.  They carried him out.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church.  She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.

An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?

Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy.  They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.

And that’s where we find ourselves today.  Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy.  Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble.  Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit.  Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira.  What about ours?

It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis.  It’s not enough that we find something that works.  Our understanding of economics begins with God.

For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.

And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.

Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.

But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.”  “No one else will act like this.”  But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different?  That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth.  So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world.  But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.

Sermon: Pluralism – Why Doesn’t Everybody Believe Like We Do?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 2nd in an 8-part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  This week we’re dealing with the challenge of pluralism — a culture of many faiths. I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
#2. Pluralism — Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?

Acts 17:16-34

The old joke was told like this:  “A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist preacher were together in a boat fishing…”

The joke was pretty funny, but that’s not my point today.  Today if you were to tell that joke, you’d have to add to the priest, rabbi, and preacher, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim imam, an Indian guru, a New Age spiritualist, a Wiccan witch, a Native American elder, a Mongolian shaman, an African witch doctor, a Haitian voodoo practitioner, and an aggressive atheist.  And maybe a partridge in a pear tree.

Then, not only would the joke be too long, the boat wouldn’t be big enough either.  My point, of course, is that we live in an age when we are aware of and exposed to many faith traditions, but it hasn’t always been that way in America.  When I was growing up, my buddy Charles Norris lived in the house behind ours.  We went to the same school, climbed over our backyard fence so often that we broke it down, and got into trouble several times together.  Once we set the backyard on fire, which was quite a show.  Another time we shot out the neighbor’s storm door with our BB guns.  But mostly we did 11-year old boy things together.  We built model cars, camped out in the backyard (which is how we set it on fire), rode our bikes all over Columbus, Georgia, and generally hung out 6-days a week.

We hung out 6-days a week, but not on Sunday, because Charles and his family were Catholics; we, of course, were Baptists.  Charles ate fish on Friday, I didn’t — mostly because I didn’t like the fish sticks the school cafeteria tried to pass off as fish.  Charles had to do some weird stuff like go to confession occasionally.  He’d tell me what he told the priest, and what the priest said to him.  Mostly, Charles had to say a lot of “Hail, Marys” — and I had no idea what that meant.

I asked my parents what the difference was in Baptists and Catholics, and got more information than I needed. Among other things they told me that Catholics prayed to saints and to Mary.  The Pope was the head of the Catholic church.  While we were living in Columbus, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency.  Of course, we were voting for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic.  One day when I got home from school, my mother said, “Want to hear a joke?”  My mother seldom told jokes, mostly because she was too busy keeping up with my brother and me, so I said, “Sure.”

She said, “Do you know what phone number Kennedy will call for instructions everyday if he’s elected president?”  I had no idea, and really didn’t think this joke was going to be very funny at this point, so I said, “No, who?”

“Whom,” my mother corrected me, which she did a lot.  Then she said, “3909.”  She wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, and then turned the paper over and held it up to the light shining through the kitchen window.  The reversed numbers now looked like letters which spelled, “P-O-P-E.”

“Pretty funny, Mom,” I said.  It actually wasn’t that funny, but I was trying to be nice to mom.

Catholics were my introduction to folks who don’t believe like we do.  Of course, as I got older, I learned even more things about Catholics, mostly from Baptists, and most of it not complimentary to the Roman Catholic Church.  I grew up in the era when Southern Baptists believed, if we didn’t out-right say so, that we were the ones with the real truth about being Christians.  And, of course, when we talked about who was going to heaven, Catholics weren’t because they worshipped Mary, and hadn’t been baptized properly.  I am thankful to say that both my parents and I became much more tolerant and open-minded about Catholics and other faiths as the years moved on.

The Challenge of a Pluralistic Culture

Of course, now we have to deal with not just one, but many different faith traditions.  The events of 9/11 shocked us into a new awareness that the ugly face of religious fundamentalism is not just a Western face, but is also a Middle Eastern face.  Before 9/11 most of us, myself included, knew little of the Muslim faith, and thought it had little to do with our daily lives.  On that morning of September 11, 2001, we realized how much the strongly held religious views of one group can impact another group.  We as Americans became very much aware of the pluralistic culture in which we lived that tragic September day.

Twenty-five years ago, unless you lived in one of America’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few others — you had to travel internationally to encounter a significant number of people of another faith tradition.

I think I have told you about our first trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong together in 1989.  When we landed in Taiwan, I made the mistake of telling our host that I would like to see some temples.  For the next three days we looked at temple after temple.  I did discover that there were Buddhist temples, Confucian temples, and temples devoted to local ancestors and local gods.  We saw lots of temples, and it was a fascinating experience.

Temple worship was not like worship in a Baptist church back home.  The temples were mostly open-air, with people coming and going.  The monks sold josh sticks, and the josh sticks were burned as prayers for their departed loved ones, and also as prayers for prosperity, health, and other requests.  The temples were noisy, they smelled of burning incense, the monks were more like gift shop attendants than religious figures, and I was intrigued by the whole thing.

One of last year’s best-selling books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, chronicled her travels to Italy where she ate; India where she stayed at an ashram and prayed; and Bali where she fell in love.  Her book has sold millions of copies because it is the story of one woman’s search for meaning.  But she found meaning in a multi-cultural, international, exotic cultural experience where the Christian faith played no part.

The challenge for those of us who are Christian, is how do we live in a pluralistic world as followers of Christ?  Paul’s encounter with the men of Athens holds some lessons for us.

Three Typical Approaches to Pluralism

Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled with how to address the world that did not embrace its beliefs.  Christianity, after all, was born in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society.  Even though the Roman Empire held the civilized world together with is Pax Romana, the world was filled with Jews who worshipped the One True God; with worshippers of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods; with oracles and those who spoke ecstatically; with the demon-possessed; philosophers; and, those who simply wanted to debate intellectually the idea of gods and their role in the world of men.  These are the men whom Paul addressed in Athens, men who were religious, and interested in debating about religious ideas.

So, Christianity is not new to a pluralistic world, but we are.  How do we as 21st century Christians relate to other religious traditions, and how does that shape our own faith.

Typically, there have been three approaches by Christians to other faiths.

The first approach is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach. That was the approach I grew up with.  Baptists were right, Catholics were wrong.  As a matter of fact, everybody else was wrong.  Which presented a problem when we went to see my mother’s side of the family, most of whom were Methodists.  My mother explained to me that Methodists and Baptists were really pretty much alike, except Methodists sprinkled when they baptized people, but you could be immersed as a Methodist if you wanted to.  Having that option made Methodists not quite so suspect in my opinion.  At least some of them could get it right, I thought.

The “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach is known in theological circles as exclusivism.  In other words, everybody but us is excluded from salvation.  That doesn’t sound too kind or appealing today, but in the 1950s Baptists were pretty much exclusivists.  Some still are.  I remember reading a newspaper published by John R. Rice, Tennessee’s fundamentalist twin to Bob Jones down in South Carolina.  John R. Rice wrote in his paper, The Sword of the Lord, that Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian because when Billy Graham held a crusade, and people got saved, the Graham organization told them to find a local church, any church.   And, if they were Catholics, the Billy Graham team did not tell them to leave the Catholic Church.  John R. Rice thought that was blasphemy, and apostacy, if I remember his words correctly.  Personally, I thought John R. Rice was a bit intolerant, and I threw my free copy of The Sword of the Lord in the trash.

But there is an aspect of Christianity that is exclusive.  In John 14:6 — “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So, there is the sense in which we as followers of Jesus are followers because we believe Jesus is what he said he is — the way to God.  There is a exclusivism to that statement and to our belief, because by saying Jesus is the only way, we are also saying Buddha is not the way, Mohamed is not the way, and without Jesus there is no way.

Paul, however, preaches the gospel message without saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  Rather, he lays out the “good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul doesn’t have to dismantle their faith to speak of his.

The second approach is the “as long as you’re sincere” approach. That approach was the polar opposite of exclusivism, and is called universalism.  In other words, everybody is going to be saved.  And, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  That line of thought emerged as America became a more educated and sophisticated society. Religious intolerance seemed so out of fashion, so why shouldn’t everyone who believed anything go to heaven, too.  Of course, the old Baptist line for this was, ‘if you sincerely drink poison thinking it’s medicine, you’re not going to get well, you’re going to die.’  I heard that illustration more than once, and it has some truth to it.

The other problem with the “as long as you’re sincere” approach is that no other religion believes that to be true.  Each religious tradition presents its own truth claims as definitive.  So, this approach, while it sounds like a very tolerant embrace of all faiths, really leads us nowhere. And, while Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” he does not let them off the hook because of their sincerity.

A third approach is the “we think we’re right, but there may be other possibilities.” This is the inclusivist approach.  We’re all included regardless of our religion, as long as we’re seeking God.  The inclusivist approach humbly admits that we may not have it right, and there may be other possibilities for salvation, but we leave all that to God.  It’s a kind of uncertain certainty, if you will.

Granted, I am painting each one of these positions with a broad brush and not doing justice to the nuances of difference between them.  But, the problem with each of these approaches is that WE are the center of conversation.  Each one of these approaches is about what we think, about what we believe to be true or rational or tolerant or palatable.  And that is the problem.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.

A More Faithful and Humble Approach To Life In a Pluralistic Society

At the center of the Christian faith we find Jesus Christ, not ourselves.  Christ is the expression of God in human form, and his followers were called “Christians” — “the little Christs” — because they lived like Jesus.  So, how do we deal with the challenge of a pluralistic society, a society in which many religions present their claims to absolute truth, in which many cultures have found new pride for their traditions in the world community, and in which Christianity itself is often seen as a less tolerant, less open, less gracious Western religion.

First, we as followers of Christ should not give up our faith practices just because we live in a pluralistic culture.

Christians follow Christ, there is no way around that.  Without Christ, there is no Christianity.  And, without Christ as the centerpiece of our faith, we are not Christians.  So, we can’t roll over when the culture asks us to pray in God’s name, but leave off the name of Jesus as we have seen in recent controversies.  We can’t dumb-down our faith so that Jesus is not offensive to others.  Of course, we don’t have to act obnoxiously either, which is what we Christians have often done.

Here’s a personal story — For many years, I was ambivalent about offering prayer for a meal in a public restaurant.  Does it look too pious to others?  Is it necessary?  Will others think I’m “holier than thou?”  But, then I saw Muslim men on TV one day, kneeling on prayer mats outside their place of business, not once but three times a day.  I thought, “If they have that much conviction and are faithful to the practice of their faith, then I should be also.” So, Debbie and I pray before each meal whether at home, which we always did, or in public.  It is a way I express my faith publicly.  Of course, I will ask others dining with us if I might offer thanks for our meal before we eat.  I am courteous to others, but not apologetic about my practice.

Paul is completely unapologetic as he talks about Jesus, and his place in God’s plan.  Luke says in Acts 17:18 — “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul did not change his message because some disagreed with him.

Secondly, we should be humble about our faith.

The exclusivistic approach — “we’re right, you’re wrong” — has led to family fights, hurt feelings, the Crusades of the 11th century, and the Spanish Inquisition, among others.  Explorers to the New World often decided that if the local natives would not become Christians, then they would have to be killed in order to save them — a religious version of the 1950s “better dead than Red” motto.  Exclusivism is arrogant, unloving, and presumes we know as much as God does about the soul of the person or persons who are the object of our wrath.

Humility in living our faith does not mean apologizing for our faith.  Rather, humility acknowledges that God knows things we don’t, like who’s going to be saved and who isn’t.  Humility about our faith acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is, as Leonardo Boff says, the first evangelist.  In other words, God is at work in the hearts and lives of people that we don’t know anything about.  The Bible contains stories like that of Lydia who was a God-fearer, and to whom Paul brought the gospel message.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message, because God had already prepared her heart.  The Ethiopian eunuch is another example — an African official who was reading a sacred scroll, possibly the scroll of Isaiah, and already had the desire in his heart to know God.

We must be humble, because arrogance and triumphalism is unbecoming to the gospel message and the love of God.

Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice, and does not seek to discredit the gods they serve, or even the monument to the Unknown God the Athenians have erected.  Rather, Paul reinterprets the history of the universe with God as creator, sustainer, and eventually judge.  Paul is both humble, and candid, courageously presenting a new way of looking at the history of the world.

Finally, we just have to tell the story.

We do not have to make the story debate-proof.  We do not have to have an answer for every objection.  We do not have to discover Noah’s ark, an original copy of the Gospel of John, or any other archaeological artifacts to prove our faith.  We do not have to apologize for the story of God sending his son Jesus, to live, die, and rise from the grave.  We do not have to be embarrassed at this 2,000 year old story because it is the same story the apostles told on the day of Pentecost.  It is the same story Stephen told before he was stoned.  It is the same story that Paul told as he carried the message of Christ from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the uttermost part of the world.  The writer of Acts tells us that some believed Paul, and some didn’t.  Others said they would like to hear some more about Paul’s story.  And then Paul moved on to another place to tell his story, again.

Like the stories of our childhood, the story of Jesus is our story.  It is our story because we have found ourselves in it when God saved us.  It does not matter if it contradicts the story of Islam, or the story of Buddhism, or the story of Judaism.  We do not have to apologize, or change our story, we simply have to tell it.

Our reluctance to tell our faith story is more in our own heads than in the responses of others.  I have visited hundreds, if not thousands of people in hospitals in my 30-years in ministry.  Only once was I turned down when I offered to pray with a concerned family member.  I have travelled to China, governed by a system that is opposed to both American capitalism and Christianity.  But I have also had Chinese men ask me about being a “priest” (they don’t know the difference in priest and pastor), and about church, and about Christianity.  I did not have to apologize, or change my story, I just had to tell it.

Since moving here, I have heard from the Chinese man who works for the company in Nantong, China with which I did business for several years.  About three years ago, after we moved here, I got an email from Mr. Wang, stating that Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu were coming to the U. S. and would like to see us, again.  They wanted to come to our church where I was a “priest,” so that (these are his words) “they could hear me pray.”  Mr. Wang closed his email by saying, “We are all lost sheep.”

Their plans changed and they did not come to Virginia, but I thought that was an interesting admission from a Chinese man who knows little of the Christian faith.  God is at work in his heart, too.  And he is right, we are all lost sheep.  The difference in our lives is that we know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

From The Cove: ‘An Exegetical Escort’

image329I’m at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina for the next three days.  This is the first Billy Graham School of Evangelism for 2009, and I’ll lead “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church” tomorrow afternoon.  But tonight we feasted on the preaching of Reverend Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Alabama.

His text was Acts 8:26-39, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Here are some particularly delightful quotes:

“The exegetical escort — the preacher — escorts the hearer by the inspired Word of God, into the presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of transformation.”

“The game is not played in the huddle.”

“It took persecution (of the church) to get them to a particular place.”

“To be a Christian then meant more than raising your hands.”

“Christ was not, in terms of Calvary, Plan B.  He was Plan A.”

“God writes the Bible backwards.  Revelation is about what happened, Genesis is about how it happened.”

When Moses and Elijah come to the Mount of Transfiguration, they did so because “they knew they were in heaven on credit.”

“God does not have an inexhaustible vocabulary. Once God has said ‘Jesus,’ He can’t say anything more.”

The Samaritans were of the “canine community — mongrels.”

“If every reference to the Holy Spirit was taken out of the Bible, we would still try to operate the church.  But there are some moves that will not happen in the church just because you write a big check.”

“It’s not what you have, it’s whose hands you put it into.” (referring to the loaves and fish)

“Don’t despise the small things.”

“God is the only one who knows how to multiply by dividing.  And he knows how to promote by demoting.”

“Prepare carefully but preach freely.”

“God is waiting on the church to declare its ignorance.”

“The best theologian I ever sat under was my Mama.  She can’t pronounce the word ‘omnipresent’ to this day, but she just says, ‘God is so big that everywhere He moves, He bumps into Himself.”

Regarding racial reconciliation: “If we can’t sit together (like Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the chariot) then we can’t go down into the water together.”

“We are cleansed by the Word and clothed by the righteousness of God.”

“When you start in the Bible, you have to go to Jesus.”

So, you can see we were in for a treat.  The 300 preachers and spouses here were standing, applauding, amen-ing, and shouting by the time Dr. Smith was finished.  You had to be there.  I’m glad I was.  More tomorrow.

Sermon: The Power of His Name

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, April 26, 2009. I hope your Sunday is wonderful wherever you gather with God’s people.

The Power of His Name
Acts 3:12-19

12When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

17″Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,”

The Back Story

I really like preaching from the revised common lectionary. In three years of scripture passages you cover all the Bible, and you do so in concert with the Christian year, from Advent to Pentecost to Ordinary Time, and back again. I like the rhythm of readings, I like preaching from texts I would have never chosen, and I like reading the same texts publicly that millions of other Christians are reading on the same Sunday in their churches around the world.

But, sometimes the lectionary reading just takes off or ends up right in the middle of something. You need the rest of the story, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, to understand what that particular reading is about.

And that brings us to our text today, from Acts 3:12-19. We jump right into the middle of a scene, just like we parachuted in, without knowing what went before it unless we back up to the beginning of Chapter 3, which we are going to do.

Here’s the story: Acts 3 is the first chapter after the account of Pentecost, and the effects of Pentecost on the followers of Jesus. Pentecost is, of course, 50-days after Passover, so Jews are still in Jerusalem until Pentecost. Jesus has been crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended back into heave only 10-days before Pentecost. Still, a week-and-a-half is a long time for nothing to happen — no miracles, no more appearances of Jesus, no heavenly messengers, no angels, nothing. So, we find the disciples hunkered down in a secret location, for fear that the Jewish leaders will do to them what they did to Jesus.

Then, Pentecost comes, and the Holy Spirit descends upon the house where the apostles and others are together. The sound of a rushing wind, the visible tongues of fire, the boldness of the Holy Spirit in their speech, and their ability to speak in foreign languages they had not learned drew quite a crowd. Peter used that moment to tie the events of the past month or so together with Old Testament prophecies.

Peter said, “This is what the prophet Joel prophesied — your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit in those days and they will prophesy.”

With that explanation Peter then talks about Jesus — his life, his death, his resurrection. Peter says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Lord — Adonai. A name for God, the most commonly used name for God because the tetragrammaton — the four-lettered name — was unpronounceable and unpronounced. We filled in the consonants with vowels, and it came out Jehovah. But others now think it might be more likely that it was Yahweh. In either event, no one said it. But, Adonai was the name for God, and now Jesus is Adonai.

Christ — Mistakenly we have spoken the two words “Jesus Christ” so often that we treat the word “Christ” as if it were Jesus last name; or at best, his other name. But, Christ in Greek — christos — would have been translated into Hebrew as “messiah.”

So, Peter was saying that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. The Jews worshipped God and longed for the coming of the Messiah to save Israel. Salvation meant to return Israel to health, freedom, and self-rule.

In other words, Peter was telling the Jews on Pentecost that they had missed the biggest event of their own history — God revealing himself in the man called Jesus; and, Jesus as the Promised One, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

When Peter gives the invitation, 3,000 repent (turn around in their thinking) and are baptized, becoming followers of Christ.

Then, they meet together, these new followers of Jesus, in each others homes, in the Temple, and miraculous signs and wonders are done by the apostles.

Now, we get to Chapter 3 finally

But, we’re not quite there yet. Peter and John are on their way to the temple one day at one of the three hours of prayer, this one in the afternoon about 3 PM. To get into the Temple, they pass through one of the gates called Beautiful, and there encounter a lame beggar. Luke, who writes Acts and is a physician, gives us the medical detail that this man has been lame since birth.

Perhaps in his 20s or 30s, this man is brought to the Temple gate daily so he can beg. He himself cannot enter the Temple because he, not being whole, is not ceremonially clean. So, here’s a man who for his entire life, certainly since he was old enough to talk, has been brought by someone to the Temple entrance to beg. No doubt he was brought by his parents early in his life, and now perhaps by those who take a portion of his earnings and who might provide the lame man a place to stay and food in return.

As far as this beggar is concerned, there is absolutely nothing special about this day — his is doing what he always does with no expectation that life will be any different today than it has been for all the years he’s been alive. He is resigned to his fate, the fate of a lame man in the first century where his condition is seen by many as God’s punishment for either his sins or the sins of his parents. Remember, Jesus had that conversation about a blind man one day.

So, the lame man, and we do not know his name from the Acts account, holds his beggar’s bowl out toward Peter and John, who look him square in the eye. Again, Luke gives us a detail that might have been overlooked by anyone else.

Why is that important? Have you ever passed a beggar or homeless person panhandling? What do you do? Well, if you’re like most people — me included — you do not make eye contact because you do not want to give them anything. Same thing is true for those folks at the street intersections with their signs — “Will work for food.” You don’t want to make eye contact. That’s another sermon for another day, but that’s they way most of us are. There’s nothing we can do or want to do for most in that situation.

But, Peter and John look this guy squarely in the eye and say to him, “Look at us!” They are obviously not hiding from this guy. Now remember that the Temple is a huge complex, with thousands of people pushing their way through all of its entrances, especially to get in for daily prayer. So, if the beggar doesn’t really see them, then Peter and John want to be sure they have his attention.

You know the next line. Peter says, “We don’t have any silver and gold” which I am sure came as a big disappointment to the beggar. “But what we have we give you, ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, walk!”

With that, Peter reaches down, takes the man by his hand and lifts him to his feet.

Have you ever known anyone lame from birth? I have met one or two. Their legs are useless appendages without muscle tone or movement. Usually curled to oneside, or hanging limply as they sit in their wheelchairs. These are not legs that can move, much less support weight, or move even if the person was somehow stood upright.

But, that’s the miracle. “Instantly” Luke says, “his feet and ankles became strong.” Another doctor’s note. The man himself “jumps” to his feet and begins to walk.

But then he does something he has never done — he walks with Peter and John into the Temple courts. And he doesn’t do it quietly — he jumps, walks, praises God, and generally causes a scene. Those who know the beggar recognize him as the same man, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Here’s the Deal

So, finally, with all that background, we arrive at our passage today — Acts 3:12-19.

The formerly lame beggar is clinging to Peter and John. His life is totally transformed, and everybody who sees it is amazed. Word spreads and others come running to see what all the fuss is about, and Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon. And he does.

The sermon is a good one. It starts where the people are, explains that this is not the work of Peter and John but of God. But, then Peter really gets going. He says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has glorified his servant Jesus.

The word servant is a description used by Isaiah to speak of the one coming to do God’s will:

13 See, my servant will act wisely [b] ;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him [c]—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so will he sprinkle many nations, [d]
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Isaiah 52:13-15

So the Servant was expected, just as was the Messiah. Peter then lays out his case.

* “You” handed him over to be killed, even though Rome’s representative was willing to let him go;
* “You” disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer instead;
* “You” killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead;

Peter says, “We are witnesses.” One supposes Peter means that the followers of Jesus witnessed it all, including the crowd turning on Jesus.

The Peter says, “It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.”

Then, after a few more words of explanation, Peter says, “Repent, then and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” There’s more, but we have to stop there.

What Does It All Mean?

This is a great story, but what does it all mean?

* Well it could mean that given the choice, we prefer the past to the future. “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the God of our fathers” is a reference to the past. This is the God who in the past did great things for us. This is the God who in the past chose great leaders for us. This is the God who in the past had great plans for us. The whole story of Pentecost, the whole story of Jesus’ life and ministry is “behold I am making all things new.” The new has roots in the past, but that which God is doing now has a different shape to it than anything before. And that is why we have a Savior.

* It could mean that we still make the wrong choices. They disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for Barabbas. Where have we heard this story before? How about the Garden of Eden? Or Noah and the flood? Or the Tower of Babel? Or Israel’s rebellion against God any number of times. We still make the wrong choices out of fear, anger, selfishness, stubbornness, and willfulness. Not much has changed. That’s why we need a Savior.

* It could mean that we thought we were in charge, but God really is. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him up.” Even our most willful act, the killing of Jesus, is undone by God who loves us. There is no sin, even the sin of “theocide” if I can make up a word, that is too great for God to make right.

* It could mean  the invitation to change is still open. We are given the chance to “turn around” or change our mind or repent — whichever way you want to say it the outcome is still the same. We choose God’s future, not our past; we make the right choice for once, not the wrong one; we see God at work and acknowledge his Sovereignty and Love; and we act in faith, given to us by this same Jesus, and turn to God in new and life-giving ways. And that is why we have a Savior.

Easter sermon: He Is The One

 

Empty Tomb
Empty Tomb

I’m preaching from Acts 10:34-43 for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that the story of Jesus is told in new and powerful ways in every church on Easter Sunday morning.  He is risen. He is risen indeed!

He Is The One
Acts 10:34-43 NIV

34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

36“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

A Christmas Story at Easter

Paul Hiebert, the late missiologist and teacher, told this story of an experience he had when he served as a missionary in India:

It was Christmas time, and in the little village in South India where he had gathered with Indian Christians in the modest church there, the villagers had put on a Christmas play, the Christmas story.

The boys dressed as shepherds had come stumbling out onto the the stage, acting drunk.  Apparently shepherds in that part of India were notorious for their drinking, and so the villagers howled with laughter at the boys’ comical portrayal of the Biblical story with a local twist.

But then the angels appeared and shepherds and villagers sat in rapt attention at the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Wise men soon appeared, making their way to Herod’s court where they enquired as to the exact location of the birth of the new King of the Jews.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan as the play went along.

As the Biblical story came to its conclusion, Hiebert thought the play was ending.  But just at that moment, the stage curtain was pulled back to reveal Santa Claus with gifts for everyone!  Hiebert was shocked.  At first he thought that these new Indian Christians were guilty of syncretism — blending in Christianity with their own myths and ancient beliefs.

But then he realized that the missionaries themselves had brought two stories of Christmas.  The first, the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem.  In that story, the setting was not far from India itself, and the climate was subtropical.  Palm trees and deserts formed the landscape, and sheep, goats, shepherds, and wisemen were the characters.

The second story was the story of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, the giver of gifts with Mrs. Santa Claus, the elves, and reindeer as the supporting cast.  Santa was the giver of gifts, and lived in a climate of snow and ice, where it was always cold and wintry.

Hiebert realized that while the missionaries had brought two stories of Christmas, the villagers in South India had combined them into one great Christmas story of Jesus and shepherds and sheep, along with Santa and reindeer and elves.  Both wonderful stories, but each with a very different point.

You might wonder why I’m telling a Christmas story here at Easter.  Here’s my point:  we have to be careful about how we tell the stories of God.  And the Easter story is no exception.

The Story of Spring Is Not The Story of Easter

Of course, Easter has some of the same wonderful folk stories that Christmas has.  At Easter time, we look for the Easter bunny with baskets of candy and eggs.  We dye eggs multiple colors, hide them from each other, and then make a great game of hunting for these prize eggs outdoors among the rest of nature.

We no longer believe the ancient mythic tales of strange gods and goddesses, and of the rites of spring, or other such nonsense.  The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have been given a whole new story — a story of fun, of springtime, of a harmless and exuberant children’s activity.  And, that’s exactly as it should be.

But, here today, we know there is a difference in the Easter bunny and in Jesus, just as we know there is a difference in Santa and Jesus.  It does not hurt us at all to believe in jolly old men who bring gifts, or to believe that as a sign of spring the Easter bunny distributes eggs just for our amusement and enjoyment.  But, we know that one story is not the other, that there is a difference in the Easter story in the Bible and the Easter sale at the mall.

Okay, so we aren’t like the villagers in South India who confused two very different stories.  But we still must be careful when we tell the story of Easter, because even if we know the story of Easter is not the story of the Easter bunny, we still tell the wrong story sometime.

The Story of Church is not the Story of Easter

One of the stories we tell at Easter is the story of church.  And, many people put on their Easter best and come to church on Easter Sunday.  That’s a good thing to do.  But it’s not the Easter story.

Like many of you, I grew up in the South.  And in the South, we have a way of making language mean what we want it to.  We say things like, “Ya’ll come to see us,” when we don’t really mean it.  And we use phrases to qualify our gossip, like when we say “bless his heart.”  That conversation usually goes something like this:

“Did you hear that Billy Smith was out drunk again last night?”

“Well, yes, I did.  Bless his heart, he’s not ever going to amount to anything.”

So, the “bless his heart” kind of softens the gossipy part, and makes us sound really concerned for poor old worthless Billy.

Well, we did the same thing with this business of church and faith.  I remember as a primary boy, when you walked down the aisle most of the time we called it “joining the church.”  Which is exactly what part of that decision was, but not all of it.  Somehow, we in the South just couldn’t bring ourselves to say, “He became a Christian today.”  Or, “She became a disciple of Jesus today.”  No, we talked about the part of that experience that was less difficult.  We said, “He joined the church today.”

Now, before you get too concerned, I know we meant to include the full meaning.  You joined the church because you had professed faith in Christ, because you had asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because you had repented of all the bad things you had done, even if you were only 6 years old.  I know we understood it meant all of that, but mostly all we could say was, “He joined the church.”

The story we were telling then was the story about church.  And, here’s how the rest of that story went:

  • You joined the church by walking the aisle at the end of the service.
  • Then the church (if you were Baptist) voted to receive you into its membership upon your baptism.
  • Then you were baptized.
  • Then you were expected to take your place as a good church member, which meant coming to church, serving where you could, giving to the church, and doing some other things like reading your Bible and praying.  And when you came to church, they even helped train you to do all of that.

And that was the story about church.  We really thought it was the story about being a Christian, but in our Southern culture and minds both of those stories were the same.

I’m reading a fascinating book titled, The Death of Christian Britain.  by Callum Brown, who is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee in the UK.  Brown examines the decline of the Christian church in Britain where now less that 7% of the population attends religious services, even though The Church of England is the official state church.

Brown looks at the popular theories for church decline in England.  He examines the theory of the “wicked city” which is the theory that urban centers broke ties to family and friends as the population migrated from the rural countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. But Brown actually demonstrates that during the period of manufacturing increase, more people joined churches than ever before.

He also looks at the theory of the Industrial Revolution itself as a contributing factor to the decline of churches, but again the data show that during the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the 1960s, church attendance and participation in Britain actually continued to increase, and at times increased sharply.

Brown concluded that neither the growth of urban centers, nor the rise of manufacturing were the causes of the decline of the church in England.

His conclusion was that the English simply began telling themselves a new story about church.  Let me explain.  The old story they told themselves about church, as did we in America, is that good people go to church, church is a good influence on growing children, respectable people live according to Christian principles, and that being a church member was a good thing.  You were baptized into the church as an infant, confirmed in the church as a pre-adolescent, married in the church as a young adult, and buried by the church when you died.  Your life was woven into the fabric of the church.

But some time in the 1960s, during the rise of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of social narratives were being called into question.  Women were finding a new place in society, young people were rebelling against their parents and the system, and society was in turmoil.  We experienced the same thing here in America, with similar results.

But, in England people began to tell themselves that you can be good and not go to church.  You don’t have to be baptized, or confirmed, that life isn’t much different for those who are than for others.  That you don’t have to do what the church tells you to do, and you can get along very well without all that religious fuss.  And church attendance began a steady decline that is unabated to this day.  Part of the point of Brown’s book is that there is a point at which Britain ceases to be Christian at all, and the church becomes totally irrelevant.

So, the story of Easter can’t be the story of the Church, because it’s easy to explain away the need for the institution of church itself.

The Story of Heaven Isn’t The Story of Easter

We have often told the story of Easter this way:  Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected so that we can all go to heaven when we die.  Now, there is truth in that statement, but that is not the story of Easter.  Actually, if you read all of the accounts of the Easter story, and of what the disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there is nothing about going to heaven when you die in those accounts.

There is wonder, and mystery, and sadness, and surprise, and unbelief, and incredulity, but not much talk about heaven or our own death.  Now, we have come to understand that a result of the death and resurrection of Christ is our own salvation which includes being in the presence of God eternally, but the story of heaven isn’t the story of Easter, either.

The Story of Easter is the Story of Jesus

In our passage today, Peter is speaking to Cornelius.  Cornelius is a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea.  Amazingly, Cornelius, even though he was in the unit known as the Italian Regiment, was a believer in the God of the Jews.  He was well-known and respected by the Jewish community.  One day in prayer, Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for a man named Simon, who was also called Peter.  The angel told Cornelius Peter was staying in a house in Joppa, about three days’ journey away.

Cornelius dispatched 2 servants and a soldier to bring Peter to Caesarea.  As they were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter had a vision.  A large sheet was let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles.  The voice told Peter, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”

Peter objected that he had never eaten anything unclean.  Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of certain animals, or meat prepared in certain ways.  But the vision persisted three times.

Then the Spirit told Peter, “There are some men looking for you. Go with them.”

Peter does, and arrives at the house of Cornelius, where he is well-received.  Peter then begins to address Cornelius, and he tells him the story of his vision.  Then he begins with the passage we read today.

Peter tells this story:

  • God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Cornelius is a God-fearer.)
  • God sent the good news of peace to the Jews through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Not Caesar, who thinks he is Lord of all.)
  • You know the story of Jesus, how he preached in Galilee, was baptized by John.
  • You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth (Christ means Messiah which means the anointed one).
  • You know the ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, and healing (saving) those who were under the power of the devil because God’s power was with Jesus.
  • We, the apostles, are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews, but they killed him by hanging him on a tree (OT prophecy).
  • But God raised him up from the dead on the third day (more prophecy) and caused him to be seen (this was no secret).
  • He wasn’t seen by everybody, but by the witnesses whom God chose.
  • We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
  • He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who God appointed to judge the living and the dead.
  • All the prophets testify about him, that every who believes in him has forgiveness of sins through his name.

So, Peter tells the story of Jesus.  Not the story of the church, or the apostles, or the things that have happened to him.  Peter tells this centurion who seeks God, the only story that matters, God’s story, the story of Jesus.
When we tell God’s story, Paul Hiebert says, “We must begin with the King, for it is the King who defines the kingdom.  The central message of the gospels is the coming of Jesus Christ as King and Lord over all Creation.”

Hiebert goes on, “In the end Jesus was tried for treason by the Jewish and Roman courts and executed as all insurrectionists were — on a cross.  The high court in heaven found Jesus innocent, and Satan and humans wicked.  Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to his lawful throne, and cast out the principalities and powers that had opposed him.  Ironically, his death, which looked like defeat to humans, was the means by which God wrought salvation for those who turn to him in repentance.  In the end, every knee, in heaven and on earth, [and under the earth] will bend before the King.

With the King comes the kingdom.  Within the kingdom is the body of Christ, the church.  And the mission given to the church is to tell the story of Jesus.  Not the story of an institution, not the story of a myth or legend, but of Jesus.

Peter says, “He is the one God appointed…”

  • He is the one born of a virgin, God incarnate.
  • He is the one who grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
  • He is the one who made blind eyes see, lame legs walk, deaf ears to hear.
  • He is the one who said, You have heard, but I say unto you — re-imagining the law of God in new, loving ways.
  • He is the one who forgave the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the cheating tax collector, and the thief on the cross.
  • He is the one who taught love for God and neighbor as the summary of the Law and the Prophets.
  • He is the one who wept at the grave of a friend, and then called him forth from the dead.
  • He is the one who broke bread with his disciples and said, This is my body broken for you.
  • He is the one who prayed in the garden, Not my will but Thine be done.
  • He is the one who walked into the night after that Passover meal, knowing it was a walk to his own death.
  • He is the one who was abandoned by friends, rebuked by the religious, mocked by the soldiers, taunted by the crowd.
  • He is the one whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
  • He is the one whose side was pierced and whose heart was broken.
  • He is the one who cried, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
  • He is the one who gave up his own life, and died the innocent victim of the Roman system of capital punishment.
  • He is the one whose body was laid in the grave.
  • He is the one whom God raised on that first Easter morn.
  • He is the one who comforted his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, and sent the Spirit to empower them.
  • He is the one who ascended back to the Father.
  • And He is the one who is coming again.

The story of Easter is the story of Jesus.  It is the story the world needs to hear, and we need to tell.  It is the story in which we find our place, for it is our story.  It is a story that goes on, it lives because He lives.

Sermon: What Holy Spirit?

If you’re on Twitter, please copy-n-paste and tweet.   Thanks, here’s the Tweet:

Here’s my message for church today titled, What Holy Spirit? Let me know what you think. http://twurl.nl/4en53g

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from Acts 19:1-9.

What Holy Spirit?

Acts 19:1-9

1While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples2and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” 
      They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

 3So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” 
      “John’s baptism,” they replied.

 4Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all.

 8Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

A Strange Group of Believers

Paul is on his third missionary journey.  Like any person with years’ of experience in his field, Paul might have thought he had seen it all.  

  • Paul had seen Jewish believers demand that Gentiles become practicing Jews first, before they could become Christians.  The Council at Jerusalem settled that issue.
  • Paul had seen disagreements among colleagues, as he and Barnabas had parted company over John Mark.  
  • Paul had literally seen a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  So, Paul went to Macedonia.
  • Paul had seen God-fearers led by Lydia come to faith in Christ.  
  • Paul had seen the inside of the Philippian jail, endured an earthquake and watched the Philippian jailer and his entire family come to Christ.
  • Paul had debated in synagogues and public debate halls about the claims of Christ.  

So, Paul had seen it all, including Jesus himself on the road to Damascus.  Or at least Paul thought he had seen it all.  Until he came to Ephesus.  

In Ephesus, Paul found some “disciples.”  Paul had a way of seeking out those who were on the fringes of a community’s religious life.  He found Lydia and the God-fearers who met with her at a “place of prayer” that was probably avoided by Jews, but well-known to those who knew Lydia.  

So, when Paul gets to Ephesus he seeks out those who are not worshipping at the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the grandest temples in the civilized world. 

Debbie and I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.  For Tennessee’s Centennial celebration, a grand exhibition was held.  Because so many institutions of learning were located in Nashville, the city became known as “the Athens of the South.”  Vanderbilt University endowed by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt; Peabody College for Teachers; Belmont College; and a number of other institutions that no longer exist called Nashville home.

As part of the centennial celebration, the exhibition featured replicas of some of the greatest monuments in the world.  Memphis was represented with a replica of an Egyptian pyramid.  Nashville built an almost life-size replica of the Parthenon.  After the exhibition, all the other buildings came down, but Nashville rebuilt the Parthenon which still sits in the heart of Centennial Park today.  Any tour of Nashville today includes a ride through Centennial Park and a tour of the Parthenon.  

But imagine a temple much larger than the Parthenon.  A building so large and magnificent that it dwarfed all the other buildings around it.  A building so marvelous that it was acclaimed as an architectural wonder.  And worshippers so committed to its upkeep and maintenance that when the temple is destoyed in 550BC, the citizens of Ephesus rebuild it over 120-years.

So, to find anyone in Ephesus who was not a worshipper of Artemis was a miracle in itself.  But Paul found some “disciples” Luke tells us in Acts 19.  

What Baptism?

Paul asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit since they were baptized.  Their reply is an honest question — “What Holy Spirit?  We don’t even know if there is a Holy Spirit?”  

Paul then asks, “Whose baptism were you baptized with?”  Their answer: John’s.  We know they mean John the Baptist because Paul responds by saying to them that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  

Remember the words of John in Matthew’s gospel — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Thousands came out to the desert because they were weary of the corruption of the Pharisees, scribes, Sadduccees, chief priest, and all of the religious leaders.  

John’s call to repentance was not a repentance from individual sin.  It was repentance from failing to be the people of God.  It was repentance from practicing the form of religion, going through the motions of religion, with no spiritual meaning.  

Many think John  the Baptist was a part of the Essene community, the ascetic community who fled Jerusalem because of its corruption.  We are indebted to the Essenes for the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.  

So, John’s repentance was a call to leave the religion of Jerusalem — literally by going to the desert — and turn their hearts truly toward God.

Perhaps these Ephesian believers were God-fearers at first.  God-fearers were not Jews, but they sought to worship the one true God, the God of Israel.  Perhaps these Ephesians were not only God-fearers, but were also aware of the ministry of John, and perhaps the Qumran Essenes as well.  In any event, they were disciples of John, not Jesus.  

Paul carefully points them to Jesus, saying that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, but that in addition John said they should follow the one who came after him, Jesus.  

On hearing this, they then were baptized in the name of Jesus.  After their baptism, Paul lays his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, and prophesy.  I imagine they know for certain then that there is a Holy Spirit!

What’s The Point?

Now imagine that you’re one of these Ephesian followers of John.  You want to serve God, the one true God, not Artemis.  You hear about John’s ministry, and you do what John tells you.  You are baptized because you want to leave the meaningless ritual life and find the real God of Israel.

And that’s where you stop.  And you think you’ve arrived.  You think you have done everything you need to do in order to serve God.  But all the while the gigantic temple of Artemis looms over the city of Ephesus.  Artemis dominates the culture and the economy.  Paul gets in trouble with Demetrius, a silversmith who makes silver shrines of Artemis and sells them.  Apparently, Paul is cutting into his profits, affecting his suppliers, and wrecking the tourist trade and the local economy.  

So, the worshippers of Artemis wield great power.  They control the city, the economy, and the culture.  If you worship any other God, you do it quietly, secretly, unobtrusively just to stay out of trouble.

But when the Holy Spirit comes, everything changes.  You experience gifts of the Spirit — speaking in tongues and prophesy.  You are able to boldly proclaim the whole counsel of God in languages you did not learn, with a boldness you did not possess before.  

Now do you begin to see the point?  Just as the Spirit came at Pentecost, he comes to believers at every location where the gospel takes root.  He empowers, he emboldens, he equips.  This is the Spirit of whom Jesus said, “I will send the Paraclete” — the one called alongside you — to tell you what to say.  To comfort you.  To be your companion, even as Jesus was their companion for three years.

No longer will the Ephesians, or any believers, have to hide as the disciples did before Pentecost.  No longer will the followers of Jesus have to live in fear and timidity.  Some will die, some will suffer, but all will be equipped and empowered with the very presence of God himself, the Holy Spirit.

What Holy Spirit?

But what of us?  We are living in a world that is increasingly secular, pluralistic, and in conflict.  Christians no longer hold center stage in the public arena.  If anything, we are an increasingly ignored voice.  Popular culture will make more allowances for Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, and atheists than it does for Christians right now.  We are living in the new Ephesus where other gods dominate the skyline.

What is our response as believers?  Often we act like we have never heard of the Holy Spirit.  We bemoan the loss of Christian values, and yet we do little to maintain those values in our own Christian communities.  Evangelical Christians divorce and have extra-marital sex at the same, or higher, rates than the general population.  

We are missing the same thing the Ephesians were missing — the power of the resurrected Christ realized in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  

Do we have to speak in tongues or prophesy in words that we have not imagined?  No, but we do need the powerful presence of God to break into our lives, to equip and embolden us.  

We need the Holy Spirit to convict us of our own sin.  We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the needs of others.  We need the Holy Spirit to move mountains, heal diseases, raise the dead, calm the storms, and change our hearts.

In short, we act just like the Ephesians: We do not even know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If everything we do in this church can be planned by our own minds, then we do not know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If everything we do in this church can be explained, then we do not know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If the only changes we see are the ones we bring about, then we do not even know if there is a Holy Spirit.

We, like the Ephesians, need to be equipped, empowered, and emboldened by the Spirit of God.  We need to know that without the Spirit, nothing we do will last.  We need the conviction that without the Spirit our religious practice is as meaningless as that of the Pharisees and Saduccees.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit to fill us to the overflowing with God’s love, so that we cannot help but find ways to give that love away in this town, to our neighbors, and to this world.

Have you received the Holy Spirit since you were baptized?  The answer to that question might surprise you.

Sermon for Sunday, June 1, 2008: Living By Faith

Living By Faith
Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Becoming My Grandfather

When I was a kid, I remember going to work with my grandfather, who ran a feed-and-seed store in South Carolina. I was old enough to play on the hay bales stacked up in the back room of the store, so I must have been 7 or 8 years old. I remember watching the men who came into the store — farmers all of them as far as I could tell. Most wore bib overalls, and all wore some kind of hat. Now this was long before everybody started wearing baseball caps, so the hats these farmers wore were straw, because it was summertime. (My grandfather always wore a hat — felt in the winter, straw in the summer.)

I noticed one straw hat in particular. It had a wide brim, and set into the front of the brim was a green plastic piece like the plastic eyeshades card dealers wore. I had seen card dealers on TV shows, but I had never seen a hat with the green-tinted piece where the brim should have been. I thought, “That’s a really dumb looking hat!”  I would have been embarrassed to be seen in one when I was 8.

Now that I am 50-years past that experience, guess what I found one day at Southern States? A straw hat with a green plastic piece sewn into the front of the brim. And, guess what else? I bought it. My old straw hat, which I wear working in the yard and garden, had recently expired and I was in the market for a new one. Somehow when I saw that straw hat with the built-in eye shade, I knew that was the hat for me. It’s actually very practical because you can see through the green eye shade when you look up, which you wouldn’t be able to do if the brim were solid.

So, I have now become that old man that as an 8 year old I made fun of!

On The Other Side of the Fence

When we lived in Greensboro, our girls were both in high school and attended Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point. For one of Amy’s first dates, which was a school function that was highly chaperoned, I had to drive her and the boy she was with to the school. She had warned me ahead of time not to embarass her with any parental comments. So, I was on my best behavior as a father, trying not to embarass my daughter, who was already embarassed by just having to ride to the school with her father.

At the time, we owned a Buick Rivera, which Debbie drove, and I drove a much smaller Nissan Stanza. So, I was somewhat unaccustomed to the wider path the Buick needed. (You can see this coming, can’t you?) As I pulled into the school driveway, and attempted to position the car to stop right in front of the door, I miscalculated, and rode the right front wheel up on the curb and onto the sidewalk. The car bumped up on the sidewalk, and then bounced back down as I corrected my turn. Needless to say, I heard about my poor driving skills after the date was over. I had embarassed my daughter despite my best intentions.

So, two stories from my own life illustrate today something of what Paul was getting at in Romans 1.

Paul Is Not Embarassed By the Gospel

Which brings us to our text today, Romans 1:16-17, and then a portion of Romans 3. The key statement Paul makes in the first chapter is,

I am not ashamed of the gospel…

Paul has spent the first part of this chapter recalling what the gospel story is. For a quick refresher, let me remind you here that the word “gospel” simply means “good news.” We could translate Paul’s assertion as –

For I am not ashamed of the good news…

The question, then is, Why would Paul need to say this? Why would anyone think he was ashamed of the good news?

What is the Good News?

To answer that question, we first have to answer the question, “What is the Good News (gospel)?” Most of us might equate what we call “the plan of salvation” with the good news. A good example of a plan of salvation is the Four Spiritual Laws, distributed widely by Campus Crusade for Christ. The Four Spiritual Laws go something like this:

  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  2. Man is SINFUL and SEPARATED from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s ONLY provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
  4. We must individually RECEIVE Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

But, while the Four Spiritual Laws contain some of the Gospel, or Good News, this really isn’t the good news. The good news for Paul, and for the entire first century world was — God keeps His promises. Let’s look at Acts 13:34. Here Luke quotes Paul, and defines for us what the gospel, the good news really is –

32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
” ‘You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.

The good news is God keeps His promises. The promises God made to the nation of Israel, the promises God made to Abraham, the promises God made to David. God keeps His promises, and He keeps them through his Son, Jesus. That is the good news.

Why Would Paul Be Ashamed of This Good News?

If the Gospel — the good news — is the story of God keeping His promises, why would Paul find it necessary to state “I am not ashamed of the gospel?” Growing up, I heard more than one sermon on this subject. Just about every youth camp or youth revival I went to the preacher would work this text in. It was a great text for teenagers, and the preachers encouraged us to live for Jesus, and not to be ashamed to stand up for Him in front of our friends and classmates. Which is a really good thing to encourage kids to do, but it is not what this statement means.

Here’s why Paul had to say, “I am not ashamed of the good news.” The gospel is a story. It is the good news of God. The good news that God keeps his promises. And God’s promises include blessing Israel so that Israel can be a blessing to the nations. God’s promises include “making all things new.” God’s promises include restoring the kingdom of heaven to God’s creation — “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, the story, or narrative as social scientists call it, is the story of God creating, correcting, and redeeming his creation.

But, there was a competing story in Paul’s day. The story of the Roman empire. Paul, even though a devout Jew, was a Roman citizen. Paul had bought into the story of the empire. It was the Roman empire that had put this revolutionary called Jesus of Nazareth to death. For Paul that was a good thing, because the empire had used its might and power to help the Jews in Judea. The empire had done what the high priests and Sanhedrin had been unable to do — silence forever the voice of Jesus, who was a threat to the Jews and the Jewish way of life.

Until Jesus appeared as a dazzling light to Paul on the road to Damascus, the story of the empire was the only story that made sense to Paul. And, so Paul was party to the persecution of those who called themselves Christians — the little Christs. These Christians had to be eradicated just like Jesus was because they persisted in spreading the message of Jesus — that God had other plans for the Jews. That God wasn’t pleased with the religious leaders of the first century. That God had a new plan to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. It was all blasphemous to Paul, and he went about living out his belief in the empire story.

But then Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. Jesus, who identified himself to Paul. Jesus who made a point of telling Paul, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Paul just thought he was persecuting the followers of Jesus, but now Jesus says Paul is persecuting Jesus himself! Jesus gives Paul instructions to find Ananias who will help Paul understand that there is a new story, a story of good news, the gospel story. And the gospel story is in direct contrast to the empire story.

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Of course, there are also competing stories in our world today.  Some are very much like the empire story that Paul grew up with.  Others are stories of consumerism, fear, exclusion, or conflict.  These stories are the prevalent narratives in our world today, and because we read about them, hear them, and see them in action, these competing stories are very easy to make our own.  But the story of the gospel, the good news, is that there is another story by which we can live.   A story of hope, of peace, of abundance, of good will, of love, and of service.  A story of God saving us from the other stories, the false stories, that can distract us from the purposes of God for our world and ourselves.

To be ashamed is to be embarassed by, to apologize for, to shift awkwardly in our seat when we hear the name of Jesus, or the story of Jesus. Paul was way beyond that. He had embraced the good news story with his whole being. Paul realized that the gospel story was in direct contradiction to the values of the empire. He realized that the emperor of Rome thought that he was god, and demanded that his subjects profess, “Cesar is Lord.” Instead, Paul realized that the new story, the story of God, the story of the Good News was the true story. And so Paul asserts dozens of times in his letters to the churches of the first century, “Jesus is Lord.” Why? Because Paul believes the story.

Paul believes the story of God, the good news, in spite of the fact that circumstances in the world contradict the good news. Paul believes the story of God, the good news, even though he sees little of it coming to pass. Paul believes the story of God, and not the story of the empire, and it changes his life. And the course of history. For the empire will yield to and embrace the story of God itself in less than 300 years, under the emperor Constantine. All because one man believed that the story of God was the true story, and it was indeed good news.  That is living by faith.  Living our lives around the story of God.  Living in the light of the story of love.  That’s what Paul did, that’s what Christ calls us to do.

When our lives center around an alternative story, the story of God through Jesus, then we are not ashamed of the good news.  We’re not embarrassed to be counted with the followers of Jesus.  We have found a new center, a real savior, a true story in the good news of God.

Podcast: Easter sermon, “Now We Understand”

I’ve fallen way behind in posting sermon podcasts, but am trying to catch up and keep them current.  Here’s the sermon from yesterday, Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008.  The title is “Now We Understand” from the text of Acts 10:34-43.  I hope it’s helpful, and that your Easter Sunday was glorious!  — Chuck

Sermon for Easter, Mar 23: “Now We Understand”

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching this Easter from Acts 10:34-43, another lectionary reading for this Easter Sunday.  I hope your Easter celebration is glorious!  He is risen!

Now We Understand

Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

I’ll Be Glad When You Have Children of Your Own!

I know this is hard to believe, but there were times when I was annoying as a child. As unlikely as this seems, it’s true. And at those times, and usually after I had thoroughly exasperated my very patient mother, she would say something like, “I’ll be glad when you have children of your own, then maybe you’ll understand!”

Little did I know that one day I would have children of my own, and I would indeed understand. Or, at least remember that she had wished that moment on me — the moment that you hear your mother’s voice in your head and you know that she saw this coming long ago, and it is sweet vindication of all your parents ever suffered for you. And, you do understand. Because you’ve had an experience, you’ve grown, you’re wiser, you’ve been changed.

Peter Has A Dream

That brings us to our text today, right out of the book of Acts, the book of the history of the early church. Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, writes the book of Acts with the same kind of insight and precision we found in his gospel account. The Acts of the Apostles, as it is properly called, is the continuation of the story of those early followers of Christ.

Acts chapter 10 focuses on Peter. This is the same Peter who was always speaking when he should have been listening, who vigorously denied that he would deny Christ, and then did so three times before he could catch himself. This is Peter who could be both arrogant and eloquent. Arrogant when he tells Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his whole body. Eloquent when he speaks words that no one had ever spoken to and about Jesus — “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The setting for this text is not that first Easter Sunday morning when Peter ran to the tomb and was dumbstruck because it was empty. No, we are a few years past that first Easter Sunday, past the empty tomb, past the almost dozen appearances of the risen Christ to Peter and the disciples. We are past the momentous day of Pentecost, 50-days after Passover, when the Holy Spirit fills Peter and speaks through him and every person present hears the gospel in their own language, and 3,000 of them are saved and baptized.

We are now in the early days of the infant church — struggling, persecuted, misunderstood, yet powerful. Peter takes center stage by force of his personality possibly, but more surely by the power of the Spirit in and on his life. He heals people, he raises a child from death, he stands up to the religious and political leaders — all the things that Jesus did, Peter now does himself in demonstration of the continuing power of the Kingdom which Jesus announced and inaugurated. And, still Peter is a Jew, a devout practicing Jew, as are most of the Christians at that point.

Then, one night Peter has a dream. In the dream, a great sheet is let down from heaven, and on that sheet are every kind of animal. Then, as Peter is looking at all the animals, a voice says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” In other words, you can eat any of these animals before you.

Now, based on Peter’s answer — “You’ve got to be kidding!” (Actually, “Surely not, Lord!”) — Peter thinks he is passing the dietary law test with flying colors. After all, what is Jewish culture noted for if not its dietary laws? We westerners have even picked up on the seriousness with which Jews take culinary restrictions when we exclaim, “That’s not Kosher!” to protest something that doesn’t seem right. Peter was kosher, if anybody was.

But, the Voice says something strange, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And, as if to make the point, this happens three times — a sheet full of animals, the command for Peter to eat, and again, and one more time.

Cornelius Has a Dream, Too

Now, while Peter ponders what this means, unknown to Peter, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, has also had a dream. Cornelius is a God-fearer, but not a Jew. Jews of the first century looked down on two groups of people — Roman soldiers, and everybody who wasn’t a Jew. Cornelius was both. But Cornelius was a devout man, and in his dream an angel of God, not just a voice, appears to him. The angel tells him his gifts to the poor and his prayers have come before God as a memorial offering. Because of that, the angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter, who is staying at Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa.

Cornelius calls two servants and a devoted soldier, and sends them to collect Peter and bring him back. This entourage arrives at Simon the Tanner’s house — a Roman soldier with two servants in tow — asking for Peter. The Holy Spirit has to tell Peter that these guys who have come for him are okay, and to go with them. If you’re a Jew, the last person you want to go somewhere with is a Roman soldier, so the Spirit had to tell Peter “It’s okay.”

When Debbie and I made our last trip to China together, we had dinner one night with about a dozen Chinese men and women, most of whom we did not know, and most of whom did not speak English. Our manager, Mr. Lin, explained who everyone was, and pointed out one man in particular. “He is Chinese CIA,” Lin explained, “Very important government man.” So, we all spent the next hour smiling, and nodding, and eating. With the Chinese military intelligence man. Or spy, or whatever he was.

I really didn’t think much more about him, because Chinese men in Shanghai have a tendency to inflate their resumes, so I really didn’t know if this guy was a military intelligence officer or not. But, when the time came for us to go back to the airport, Lin said, “Mr. Military Intelligence will send a car and soldier tomorrow to drive you to the airport.” Now, we had already tried to take pictures of some Chinese soldiers when we visited a Buddhist shrine, and were warned that was not a good idea. So, we didn’t know what to expect. But, sure enough, the next morning, a white minivan, with a fully uniformed, but unarmed, Chinese soldier arrived at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza to pick us up and take us to the airport, which was about an hour-and-a-half ride. Lin waved to us as we rode off into the sunrise, Debbie and I thinking we might never be heard from again. So, I can imagine how Peter must have felt when a Roman soldier shows up to take him to a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Nevertheless, with the Spirit’s assurances, Peter goes, arrives at Cornelius’ home, and Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet, tells him about his dream, and then Peter understands what his own dream meant: God’s people now included people other than Jews.

Now Peter Understands

Then, Peter begins to speak, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Of course, we agree with that statement, but it’s hard for us to comprehend what a big leap this is for Peter. Peter is a Jew. The Messiah was promised to the Jews. The Promised Land was given to the Jews. God’s covenant was with the Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Not the Gentiles, and certainly not a Roman centurion, his servants and friends.

But, Peter now understands. And he understands because God wanted him to understand. God sent the dream to Peter, and to Cornelius at the same time. God had Cornelius’ men arrive just as Peter is pondering his own dream. God wanted Peter to understand because the next step in redeeming the world is to include more people than just Jews.

Peter’s experience with God in a dream and in meeting Cornelius gave him a new perspective. Peter was able to say, “Now I understand.”

Peter Tells The Story

But, God wants Cornelius to understand, too. So, Peter tells the story to Cornelius. He says —

36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Peter tells Cornelius, “You’ve heard the message God sent to the people of Israel, the message of Jesus who is Lord of all.” This message is no longer just for the Jews, it’s for everybody. The events happened in Israel, but Jesus is Lord of all.

And, if that’s not enough, Peter says, “We’re witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem.” The events of Jesus life and ministry happened there, Peter is saying, but they’re good other places, too. And, Peter goes on that after they killed Jesus, God raised him from the dead and caused him to be seen. Not by everybody, but by us, Peter says. We even ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And, Jesus himself commanded us to preach to people and say that he is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead.

Oh, and by the way, all the prophets say that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. Everyone. Not just the Jews. Everyone.

Cornelius and His Friends Understand Now, Too

Now, this part isn’t in our reading for today, but the story isn’t complete without it. Here’s what Luke says happened next –

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Cornelius and his friends are so moved, so open, that the Holy Spirit comes upon them. They speak in tongues as Peter and the apostles did on Pentecost, and they praise God. The Jews with Peter (the circumcised believers) were astonished because these Gentiles were having the same experiences the Jews had — the Spirit was at work in their lives, too. I like Peter’s reply — “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” They had already been baptized with the Spirit, so now everyone there understood. God really was the God of the Gentiles, too.

Jesus Changes Everything

Into the first century world of power politics, racial division, and ethnic hatred, Jesus came with resurrection power. Some followed him, but they still didn’t understand. Peter was among those, those who wanted to follow Jesus, those who wanted a different world than the world they lived in, those who wanted to know God. But, Peter didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was doing when he fed the five thousand. Peter didn’t understand what Jesus did when he spoke calm to the raging storm. Peter didn’t understand how Jesus could tell them where to cast their nets, and then he didn’t understand how they could catch so many fish in the blink of an eye when they had been fishing without any luck all night. Peter didn’t understand when Jesus was arrested, and even though he tried to stay close, Peter denied Jesus. All because he didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t even understand when he ran to the empty tomb that Easter morning. Or when he saw the risen Christ, not once but maybe 11 times. He didn’t understand after Jesus’ ascension, as he and the other apostles waited in a room in Jerusalem because they were afraid for their lives.

But, on the day of Pentecost, when the breath of the Holy Spirit breathed into Peter so that he stood to preach a sermon like no one had ever heard, Peter understood. When tongues of fire appeared on their heads, and the sound of rushing wind filled the place, Peter understood. When 3,000 came to Christ that one day alone, Peter understood. And, when a beggar asked for money, Peter and John could say, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And the man lame from birth not only walked, but he jumped up and walked, following them into the Temple and praising God.

Peter understood that the apostles were now carrying on the work of Jesus — healing the sick, raising the dead, challenging the religious leaders, suffering persecution, gathering the flock. All because his experience changed him.

Forgetting What We Know

Now I wish I could tell you that’s the end of the story. That Peter finally understood, and lived in the light of that understanding for the rest of his life. But, not long after that Paul has to confront Peter. Peter eats with the Gentiles when there are no Jews present, but when a delegation comes from the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, Peter quits eating with the Gentiles for fear of offending the Jews. Peter’s memory is short, and though his experience changed him, his cultural bias betrays him.

We can say we understand because we had an experience. We can say that a break-through came in our lives when God taught us something, or circumstances arrayed themselves in a providential manner so that we had new insight into what God was doing. And we can live that way for a while.

But one day, we’ll slip back into old patterns if we’re not careful. One day we’ll forget the glow of that life-changing experience. One day we’ll find ourselves like Moses — still wearing the veil to cover our faces but without the glory of God on our faces.

And, that’s where Easter comes in. Because we need to come back from the culture of death that still tries to pull us down. Peter said of Jesus, “They killed him, but God raised him up.” In that resurrection is everything we need to live. Because the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that the resurrection is coming one day for us, too. That resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that the tentacles of death — despair, hopelessness, faithlessness, inconsistency, failure, and sin — that they are powerless to take and to hold us.

In the resurrection are the miracles of Jesus, the power of Pentecost, the hope for the future, the gates of heaven, the defeat of death, the end of fear, and the promise of tomorrow. We celebrate Easter as though it happened once, long ago. And it did, but it happens each day, each moment, when someone moves from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light. When someone dreams a dream that draws them closer to God, when someone hears the Spirit spur them on to a new walk with God.

And so this is Easter, and the refrain was, “He is risen, He is risen, indeed!” And when the power of Easter dawns in our own lives, we can say with Peter, “Now we understand.”