Thursday, May 29, 2014

Am I Worthy to Suffer? Acts 5:41-42

How could they do that!?

How could they rejoice after being flogged? The disgrace that they had suffered was that the Jewish sanhedrin had flogged them and ordered them once again not to speak out in the name of Jesus. My understanding of a Jewish flogging is that you received 39 lashes. I've always thought that meant being hit 39 times with the cat-o-nine tails. As I was studying for this, someone I read mentioned that the 39 lashes were the individual stripes received, not the number of times whipped. Either way, the fact is that the reason the limit was 39 was because they knew you couldn't live much past 40. So they gave them 40 minus one in order to be safe. How generous.

And the apostles walked away rejoicing.

I wish I could see a video of how they were rejoicing. Were they singing? Were they smiling? Were they clapping their hands? Undoubtedly, they were moving slowly because they would have been in horrible pain. Undoubtedly, in the midst of the rejoicing they were also grimacing. I wonder if it was an outward display of rejoicing or if it was more of a determined attitude and a verbal acknowledgment that this was a good thing to be "counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name."

How could they walk away from that happier than when they walked into it!!? Everything in me rebels against the thought of pain. I don't want it and I don't seek it. Of course, the truth is that neither did they. They weren't rejoicing because they were in pain. I don't think they were excited about that at all. They were rejoicing because "they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name!"

They remembered what Jesus had said,
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.- John 15:20-21
All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them.- John 16:1-4
and before that,
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. - Matthew 5:10-12
When I think of those passages and I think of the way the early Christians rejoiced, I can't help but think of my own life of comfort. I've been uncomfortable because of my faith a few times in my life. I've stood up for what is right at times. I've spoken to people in the name of Jesus before. But have I ever really been persecuted? No, I would have to say that I have not.

And based on this passage, I can't help but to ask, "why not?" Is it because I am not yet "considered worthy of suffering shame for the name?" Have I not been faithful in small things yet and therefore have not been given greater things? Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to be a martyr. I don't think Paul did either. In fact, when he could avoid a beating by using his Roman citizenship, he did (Acts 22:22-29). 

I don't believe that we are called to go out looking for trouble. But the fact is that throughout history, those who have proclaimed their faith clearly and powerfully in the name of Jesus, those who have really lived what they've preached, those who have been true lights in the world, have naturally been found by trouble. Why? Because the darkness hates the light (John 3:20).

May we live in such a way that the darkness hates us. Not because we are hateful to those living in darkness. Jesus was never disrespectful or demeaning to those living in darkness. But because we are constantly shining the light of God's righteousness and love upon those in darkness in order that those who would come to the light may have the opportunity to see it and respond. May we be thankful for and enjoy the comforts and the freedoms that God gives us when He does so, but may we never let Satan use those comforts and freedoms as traps to keep us from doing the hard work that we are called to do. Jesus never promised comfort in this world. But he did promise to give us abundant life. May we know that life so that when trials do come, we too have the ability to rejoice "that we were considered worthy to suffer shame for the Name."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Was God fair to Ananias and Saphira? Acts 5:4-5

Original picture uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

How does someone lie to God?

That's what Ananias was accused of. Lying to God. That's what Peter pointed to in order to explain the seriousness of his offense. Ananias lied not just to men, but to God. And he was struck down dead for it. It seems rather harsh. It seems that the punishment did not quite fit the crime. It seems like God is unfair and unkind.

I think there are several plausible answers that do not twist logic or twist the scriptures in order to leave room for God's fairness and equity...not to mention His love in the midst of this tragic story.

Most believers point to the seriousness of sin as the answer to this difficult story. If we only knew the true destruction of sin, we would not gasp in horror at the severity of a God that struck people dead for lying. We would bow in humble amazement to the God who stooped low enough to be killed himself in order to save people from their sins. God was not unfair. We are simply uneducated about the real pain of sin. A pain that lasts for eternity and that is caused by separation from God. A pain that God does not want us to have and therefore goes to great lengths both to educate us about that pain and even greater lengths to save us from it.

Most believers also think that God knew their hearts. If their hearts had been inclined to repentance then they would have been granted that chance. But just as Jesus knew the hearts of all men (John 2:25) while he was on the earth, so the Spirit would still know the hearts of all men when Jesus is in heaven. God must have known that there was not room in Ananias and Saphira's hearts for repentance and therefore He would not force them to be saved. But he would also not allow their pride and their sin to cause damage to His infant church.

I think those explanations have merit. But at the same time, I think about the debate between Kyle Butt and Dr Bart Ehrman about the problem of suffering. I was surprised to find while writing this that the video of the debate has been taken off of you tube. Since I cannot go back the video, I can only paraphrase from memory one section of the debate.

In that section, Dr. Ehrman very passionately reminded Kyle that the discussion of the problem of suffering was not simply a logical discussion. He chided Kyle for only wanting to talk about logic and for dismissing anything of emotion and finished by emphatically stating that we are human beings! Therefore, the conversations has to include the emotions involved in being human!

And that truth is why instead of focusing on the logic of how a very good God could strike dead Ananias and Saphira, I want instead to simply ask some questions of you that you will need to answer in order to keep your faith when emotions are very, very real.

Forget about the reasons for a minute. Let's say you can't think of a single good explanation for the deaths of these two early Christians (or people claiming to be Christians). Or maybe, you are reading this and you really don't accept the explanations I mentioned above. You, like Dr. Ehrman, are one that simply cannot get past the emotional reaction of discomfort- and even disgust- with a God who would do something like this. I want to challenge you to think about something else before trying to decided about God based on this story.

Is there enough reason to believe that God is real? Is there enough evidence scattered throughout creation to point to a Creator? Is there enough proof to point you to the God of the Bible instead of the other gods in the world of men? Are you convinced by the witnesses of Christ's resurrection? Have you weighed the evidence and decided that while faith is not yet sight and therefore all doubts have not been removed, the evidence does demand a verdict that God is real and Jesus is His Son?

And if so...have you been convinced through all of that study that He is sovereign...and that He loves you perfectly and infinitely?

If you have been convinced of those things, then could you continue to worship and praise God trusting that He is good even when you can't explain why some things happen that might seem unfair?

I choose to believe and to put my faith in Christ, not because I do not on occasion...and actually very often...have questions. I choose to believe because there is enough evidence to warrant belief even in spite of things I don't understand. And when I can't understand those things, I trust in Romans 8:32.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

I am convinced for very good reasons that God gave us Jesus. And for that reason I will trust in Him even when I can't seem to come up with very good reasons for why something happened the way that it happened. What will you trust in?  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Putting "Community" Back into the Community of Believers- Acts 4:32

Last week I heard the end of a conversation on one of the Christian radio stations about why the millennial generation is not really involved in churches. I didn't get to hear much of what was said, but when I tuned in, they were discussion some sort of big conference in which representatives of many large church organizations and denominations were discussing different ideas for how to bring in and keep twenty-somethings. The man talking described all the big ideas and programs that were thrown out in the brainstorming session. Until finally a young man- in his twenties- stood up and said, "You know, I think if there were just one other person in the congregation that I was really close to...that I had a really deep relationship with...I would come back."

I don't think there are very many of who would argue too loudly that we are by and large missing some of the connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ that the early church felt. When I read passages like Acts 4:32, I sometimes long for those relationships as well. Don't get me wrong, I have some incredibly close friends in the church that I am currently attending and in the church at large. But how many of us can say that? How many of us have relationships with the others in the church that are so real and so lasting, that we don't even count our possessions as our own? Can we really say that we are of "one heart, one mind?"

I don't think that phrase means that we never disagree. After all, Peter disagreed with the others in Jerusalem initially about bringing in gentiles. Paul disagreed with Peter about his practice of disassociating with the gentiles when the Jews came around. Paul and Barnabas disagreed over the inclusion of John Mark on the next missionary journey. No, being of one heart and one mind most certainly cannot mean that we will always have the same opinions and hold the same exact beliefs. Just look at Romans 14 as an example.

But what it does mean is that we have the same purpose. That purpose is to glorify Christ and to spread the kingdom of God. And it does mean that we actually view each other as family and not just as "church friends." You know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the relationships that we have with people in the church that consist of "Hey how are you doing?" "Great, how are you." "Doing good." "How was the ball game last night?"

It's just got to get past that at some point for us to be family!!!

Jesus said that the rest of the world would recognize us as his disciples when they saw our love for each other. Do they? Or does our association with the church more closely resemble our other associations with social clubs and PTA meetings where we hold a loose connection that gives us just enough common purpose to meet on a semi-regular basis in order to discuss our children and our common goals?

Now I have a hunch. If what I am writing is resonating with you and you are thinking about your frustration that your church doesn't sound at all like the church of Acts 4:32, then my guess is that your temptation (like mine) is to think about all of the things that could be done differently in order to better facilitate better relationships. You might think about more effective meeting times and different styles and locations of assembling with the saints that might seem to be more conducive to building relationships. You might think of different programs that would really encourage people to get closer together. You might get really excited about the idea of a congregation-wide ropes course team building activity! (That one is probably gonna be a little difficult to pull off!!:)

I'm not going to go anywhere close to commenting on any of those things. Changes can be helpful or they can be hurtful to a local congregation. The shepherds of each congregation have a responsibility to evaluate their flock and where they are and to lead in a direction that enables Godly relationships to thrive in an atmosphere of family trust that is so real "we don't hold our possessions as our own." But that's up to them.

What is up to me...and to ask "what am I doing right now to build a real and meaningful relationship with someone else in the church?"

There is a bumper sticker philosophy that is attributed to Gandhi that says "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Apparently Ghandi didn't actually say that. What he did say was, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do."

In other words, you're not going to change the world by just sitting back and "being the change." But the change that we must focus on first is the change in ourselves.

So how about it? Do you want to see the church look like the church of the first century again? Do you long to feel the connections that the earliest Christians did? Connections so strong and so real that they gladly sold property and gave it to the church. Connections so real that if someone was in need there wasn't a moments hesitation. Relationships that went beyond any blood lines to the point that brother and sisters in Christ forgot that they were brothers and sisters "in Christ" and simply became brothers and and sisters  who shared a common home in heaven with a loving Father and they therefore recognized that what's mine is yours and what yours is mine." Do you want that? Then I guess I'm going to challenge you in a slightly bumper sticker way to

Be the change you want to see in the church.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What do we pray for? Acts 4:29-30

I spent a couple of hours between yesterday and today talking to a lady at the hospital who asked for a preacher. I had never met her before but she identified herself as a member of one of the other congregations in town and said that she was having trouble getting in touch with someone from there. It became very apparent as soon as we started talking that the reason she wanted to talk to a preacher was because she was very frustrated about a neighbor who was causing her trouble. I couldn't follow everything she said, but by the end of it, I was reading Jesus' instruction in the Sermon on the Mount about praying for your enemies and loving them even when they spitefully use you.

I'm still not sure if the message sank in. She insisted that she was praying that her neighbor would leave her alone and that she would be able to have peace. I tried to encourage her to pray a different way. To pray that God would actually bless her neighbor instead of just praying for peace through the situation and for her neighbor to mind her own business.

Praying for that kind of stuff when someone is doing us wrong just simply isn't easy. It cuts against our grain. And yet Jesus commanded it. I don't fault this lady for struggling with the idea. I do too. When I got back to the office and looked at the verse for today, this idea of what exactly it is that we are praying for hit me again.

The context of the passage above is that Peter and John had just been arrested twice and beaten once because they were speaking out in the name of Jesus. In fact, they had healed a man in the name of Jesus and refused to not give Jesus credit and preach in his name in the shadow of the healing. And after they were released, they went back to the other disciples and the disciples prayed this prayer. They knew persecution was coming, but they didn't pray for safety. They knew beatings were on the way and they didn't pray for protection. They knew it was going to be difficult and they didn't pray for an easier road.

They prayed that God would give them the strength to continue speaking in spite of the threats!
They prayed that God's power would be displayed through signs and wonders in the midst of the persecution!

I'm afraid that it is far too often that my prayers center completely on me and on my wants and desires. I try not to be selfish or self-centered, but I pray about the stuff that is worrying me and I ask God to take it away. Not so with the people who were this close to the death and resurrection of Christ. They understood in a very visible way the reality of the resurrection and the power of God. And therefore, they prayed that God's will would be done and that they would be enabled to do it. I want to have that heart! I want to have that abandon of personal protection and comfort and I want to be strengthened and emboldened to do and to say the things that God has called me to do and to say. And even though my personal wants usually bubble to the surface first, my deeper self...who I am at the core wants what God wants. Sometimes I just have to remind myself of that.

What do you pray for?

Do you pray that God would remove your obstacles or that He would give you the strength to overcome them?
Do you pray that God would give you the strength to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way or the obstacles that stand in the way of the advancement of the kingdom of God?

What do you pray for?

Perhaps when we evaluate our prayers we will see that we have not truly been obeying Jesus' instruction about prayer when he began his prayer with "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Maybe, if we start praying unselfishly as the early church did, we will start seeing more direct answers to prayers because we will truly be praying the will of the Father. Perhaps if we regain the passion for God's will to be done no matter the comfort or advancement of our own wills, we will get more passionate about saving souls than casting votes. More excited about winning lost sheep to Christ than winning ballgames. More serious about knowing the Savior of the World and making Him known to others than knowing the answers to the final exam.

What do we pray for?