Sunday, February 16, 2014

What shall we do? It's actually fairly simple...sort of.- Acts 2:38-39

Original picture by Felipe Skroski
It seems too simple.

Just think about the question that prompted this instruction. When they were convicted and were "cut to the heart" by the message of Christ and they believed what Peter said- that they had killed Jesus, the man God made both Lord and Christ- they asked "what shall we do!?"

That question sounds very tame when I read it  in modern English today. But I don't think it was a tame and calm question at all. I think it was a panicked and desperate question. They had been cut to the heart. They had just accepted the fact that they were murderers...and not just any murderers. They were murderers of the Christ of God...the Lord, Himself! "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" could easily be interpreted to say "No! This can't be! If I am responsible for the death of the Lord, I can't live with that! I can't go on! Is there any answer? Tell me what to do and I'll do it! Anything! Is there anything I can do to right this wrong!?"

God's instructions through Peter did not involve any great feat on the part of the offending sinners. He simply told them, "repent and be baptized."

A man named Naaman was given similar instructions when he was petitioning the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy. (See 2 Kings 5 for the full story) Naaman initially left angry because he was expecting the prophet of God to perform some elaborate ritual. Instead, Elisha just sent his servant to the door to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River 7 times. Thankfully for Naaman, one of his servants talked some sense into him before they got too far away. "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!" (2 Kings 5:13). Naaman finally obeyed the simple command to wash in the water, and his skin was made "clean like that of a young boy."

Some look at promises like that in Acts 2:38-39 and attempt to minimize the cost of being a Christian. Paul addresses those ideas in places like Romans 6 and elsewhere. Others look at the promise in Acts 2 and reject it the same way Naaman did because it is just too simple. The truth is that the command to "repent and be baptized" is both a very simple, and a very complex command.

Repentance means a change of thinking and a change of doing. It is a decision to change course completely. It is the only correct answer to Jesus' call to "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." Repentance means making the judgment call that to be a slave of God is infinitely more valuable than the illusion of freedom and independence in decision making. I say "illusion" because the truth is that some day- on the last day- every person who has ever lived will be convicted with the truth of the gospel message. On that day everyone will understand that refusing to become a slave of God was really just a choice to remain a slave to sin. Repentance is not easy. And it is not something that is done once and then moved on from. It is a daily decision to live for Christ instead of self. But the journey of repentance does not need to be finished before one is ready to be baptized. It needs to be begun.

And once someone has repented, has made the decision to "die to self," then the process is finalized in the same way we finalize the physical death of someone. We bury them. Baptism is a beautiful picture of burial of the old sinful self (See Romans 6). Yes, it is a simple act at least for the person being baptized. But it was anything but simple for God to put the plan of salvation into place before the foundation of the world, allowing Jesus' death to serve as a substitutionary sacrifice  for our deaths. And all He asks us to do is to repent and be baptized.

But the blessings of this promise don't stop with just the eternal forgiveness of our sins. We are also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. I love the fact that God, through Peter, saw fit to spell out for those of us living today and anyone who comes behind us, that the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit is for all of us who are called by the Lord. Without getting into all the details of what exactly the gift of the Holy Spirit is, I think we can at least rule out a few things it is not. 

First, it is not simply the gift of the Word of God- if by that we are talking about the written Bible that we have today. How do I know that? Because the gift of the Holy Spirit was not just for people later on...God promised it to the people who were listening to Peter that very day! If that was about 33 A.D., then the last letter written that we have in the Bible- Revelation- wasn't written for another 60 years or so! I have no doubt at all that the written word collected in our Bibles is a very valuable and worthy gift from God and His Spirit. But it cannot be the only gift being referred to by Peter in this promise.

Second, it is not a promise that every believer who repents and is baptized will be able to perform miracles, speak in tongues, or prophesy. A quick reading of 1 Corinthians 12 will make it abundantly clear that not every believer will receive the same "specific" gift, or ability, from the Spirit.

But this is what I do know. Every single repentant and baptized believer from the day of Pentecost down through the ages until today has received the gift of the Holy Spirit!

May those of us who lean toward legalism remember that Peter's answer to the question "what shall we do" was not to try harder and live better. It was to repent and be baptized. It was simple. Because the gospel story is that it what we have done is insignificant compared to what God in Christ has done. Our part is to accept that promise as fact and live trusting it with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide our days and help us in our faltering obedience.

May those of us who lean more toward what some people call "easy grace" remember that Peter did not simply say "be baptized." He said, "repent and be baptized." If Christ's love has not changed my focus, my attitude, and my Lord, then Christ's love has not changed my eternal destiny either. If there was never a death, then there was never a burial in the watery grave of baptism. There was just a dunk in a pool of water.

And may all of us heed the words of Naaman's wise servant. "if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!"

May we all learn to trust in this ancient promise more and more every day. The promise that if we obey the command to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus," the we will receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit." And may we live joyously and passionately because of it just as the early church did.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Remembering the Ugliness of the Cross- Acts 2:36-37

I hope you are asking why I've put a picture of someone hanging from a noose with this verse about crucifixion. Why not put a picture of Jesus' crucifixion on a cross?

It's very simple. When I was trying a find a picture of a crucifixion, it occurred to me that most of the paintings of Jesus on a cross are still pretty pictures. Jesus very rarely has more than a trickle of blood coming from his head and/or his side. As I was looking for those pictures, I also remembered something I had read about the cross losing some of its meaning as a gruesome executioner's tool instead of as the beautiful symbol of faith that it is today in our culture. We wear crosses as ear rings and necklaces. We display pretty pictures of crosses in our stained glass windows and in our church bulletins.

But to the average first-century person living within the Roman empire, that would be equivalent to wearing a pair of earrings shaped in the form of a noose, or a necklace with an electric chair pendant. I didn't want to include a picture of the cross, because I don't think it draws the same reaction from us that it did 2,000 years ago when Peter finished his sermon by saying, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!" The "stumbling block" of the cross was the exact same gut reaction that we have when we see images of modern day execution today. THE LORD AND CHRIST SHOULD NOT HAVE DIED LIKE THAT! AND I CERTAINLY SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN A PART OF CARRYING IT OUT!! That reaction and feeling is why Paul said the message of the "crucified Christ" was "to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The image is offensive. And the realization that I am responsible for the Lord and Christ dying in that manner is exactly what motivated the people to be "cut to the heart" and to ask the only logical question. If we are responsible for the brutal and inhumane execution of our Lord, "what shall we do!?"

The sermon that led up to this conclusion was the same outline that is used often in the book of Acts and, hopefully, is still used in every sermon today:
  1. Jesus was a man, but He was sent by God and He was God.
  2. That was proven to you by the miracles and works He performed.
  3. You killed him through the hands of lawless men.
  4. But it was God's plan for all of that to happen.
I doubt any of those points of the sermon are new to you.  Many of you have been familiar with at least the basics of those truths (even if you did not accept them) since you were little. But when was the last time those words that concluded the sermon "cut you to the heart" the way it did the crowd that day?

I am convinced that the faith and the extraordinary obedience that follows the disciples of the Way throughout the rest of the book of acts is because they understood completely the debt they owed to Christ. They understood that their sins nailed him to the cross. They did not view the cross as a beautiful thing to be taken advantage of. They viewed it as it was...a cruel execution.

But they did view the resurrection as the most beautiful thought in the world! They believed that they could be free of the guilt, not by their own merit, but by God's grace. And that grace that they felt through the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ Himself living in them motivated them to spread that gospel wherever they went. It motivated them to stand firm in the face of persecution. It motivated them to rejoice about the fact that "to live is Christ, but to die is gain!" (Philippians 1:21)

May we once again be "cut to the heart" and recognize the awful cost of sin. May we be motivated to see the answer for that debt in Christ. And may we live every minute of every day this week joyfully serving the master who let his slaves execute him in the most painful way invented at the time...just so we could see Him again after we are all raised from the dead with Him.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Before the Spirit came...they prayed- Acts 1:14

I think I have acknowledged this before...I have never felt extremely confident in my prayer life.

Even as I type that, I recognize a glaring doesn't matter whether I feel confident in my prayer life or matters whether I feel confident in the God I am praying to.

Having said that, let's look at this passage.

The context is that the disciples of Christ (about 120 of them) were following Jesus instructions about waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. They didn't know what to do. They didn't know when He would show up. They just knew that Jesus had told them to go to Jerusalem and to wait.

And they obeyed.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that I read at least one commentator who referred to the book of Acts as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. It is very telling to me as we look forward to how the Holy Spirit was going to fall on this group of disciples so powerfully in chapter 2, that they were "with one mind continually devoting themselves to prayer."

What are things we are unsure about? What are things we can't quite see what the next step is? What decisions are facing you personally, or facing your family, or facing your church body as a whole? When the disciples knew absolutely nothing about what God's plans for them were and how they were supposed to proceed, they simply prayed together. I think about the disagreements that would arise later in the church about the entrance of the gentiles. I think about Paul and Barnabas's disagreement about John Mark. I think about all of the other "discussions" that have been had in churches down through the centuries. I am convinced that the seeds of those differences of opinions were at least already there on those days when the 120 were gathered to pray. And yet they were of "one mind"...and in that "one mind" they were praying.

And what was their "one mind"? I am convinced it was that they were all devoted to the Christ they had put absolute faith in. They were all absolutely devoted to following Him and His Spirit that would come soon no matter what the costs. And they were devoted to depending utterly and completely on the God who had the power to raise Jesus from the dead. So they prayed.

I feel like I would give anything to have been a part of that room. I wish I could learn from those who asked Jesus directly "Lord, teach us to pray." I wish I could see the group and individual dynamics of prayer that existed in this body of believers. But maybe, it's all the same that I cannot. Maybe God intended it that way so we would have to depend on Him for how to pray now just as I'm sure they did then.

As we seek to follow the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ almost 2,000 years later, may we recognize that the Spirit they were waiting on is still here with us today. May we be united, not in all of the details of the "hows" and the methods and the opinions- because we can never be united in all of those things this side of eternity. But may we be united in our commitment to follow the guidance of the Spirit through the Word and through prayer. May we re-learn how to pray together in ways that bring the power of the Spirit forcefully into our congregations and into our cities.

May we once again be a people of power...only because we are a humble people of prayer. What will you pray today? How will you encourage someone else who is a fellow believer to pray? Who will lead our churches once again to "with one mind, continually devote ourselves to prayer?"