Monday, August 25, 2014

A Strong Answer to a Weak Prayer- Acts 12

Original picture by deviantart user navalatanjjnn and used under a Creative Commons License
Have you ever prayed for something only to be disappointed that you did not get the answer you prayed for? If you've prayed very much at all, then I doubt very seriously that you would answer "no" to that question. So let me ask another. When a prayer is not answered the way you had hoped, have you found yourself asking if you possibly "prayed the wrong way" or if you didn't "pray with enough faith?" I've admitted it before, and I'll admit it again, prayer is not something I feel I understand well. I will teach about it from what I can gain from the scriptures. And I try to apply that teaching to my life. But I have become convinced that if faith itself is actually one of the spiritual gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12:3), then that is not one of the gifts I have been blessed with. At times, I would say that in a complaining way. I wish that I had more faith. I wish I could emulate the faith I see in others and make courageous decisions and "pray dangerously" as some talk about. And at times, I do. But more often than not, my prayers are burdened with doubt.

And it is for that reason, that I draw such great encouragement from this story of the church praying for Peter.

In case you are unfamiliar with the context, you can read it here. The cliff's notes version is that Peter had been arrested following the death of James and his execution was imminent. So the church did the only thing it could do, which was also the most powerful thing it could do. They prayed earnestly. 

From the comfort of our homes and church buildings 2,000 years later, we can read that statement in verse 5 without batting an eye. We already know the end of the story because we have already read Peter's letters that he wrote much later in his life! We already know God answered their prayers to save him. The way in which he was saved is pretty amusing in itself as we see Peter being led out of the prison in a half stupor until he is finally free and realizes what has happened! But the part that encourages me and my lack of faith is the brutal honesty with which Luke records the church reacting when they are in the act of praying itself and are told by Rhoda that not only had their prayers been answered, but that Peter was standing outside!

A more self-righteous group of people might have been persuaded to have left the details out. They might have been tempted to boast about their confidence in the power of prayer. Luke might have recorded them as celebrating and talking about how they just knew God would grant their requests. But that is not what happened, and it is not what Luke recorded.

What Luke did record is that when Rhoda slammed the door in Peter's face and kept telling the others who were gathered in prayer that he was outside, they told her she was crazy! When she insisted, they decided maybe she's not it must be his angel! In other words, Peter had been killed and his angel was now appearing to them! It's actually kind of humorous to me that Luke even records that Peter just keeps knocking until they finally come see for themselves! I have to wonder if Peter wasn't tempted to repeat with a joyful twinkle in his eye what Jesus had said to him so many times before, "Oh you of little faith! Why did you doubt?"

Now, if their assumption about what they were being told was that Peter was that Rhoda was crazy or that Peter was dead, I have to ask, what were they praying for!? Weren't they praying for Peter's deliverance? Or had they already given up praying for deliverance and begun praying merely for his courage and faith to remain intact? And if the latter was their prayer, were they praying that because they did not believe God had the ability to save him?

The only thing I feel confident in saying is that the church most certainly did believe in the power of God to do whatever the will of God wanted. And yet, they were astonished when their prayers were answered by a direct act of God's intervening power.

That gives me the courage to keep praying in spite of my doubt because I know that God's answers to prayer do not depend on my ability to pray well. They don't even depend on my ability to pray with no doubts. Yes, I know the verses about praying with faith and not praying with doubt. But I also know that Jesus Himself was told "no" in the garden! And I am sure that I will be too, no matter my level of faith! And I am also confident that God's power is in no way affected by my weak faith!

And so I will pray. At times I will doubt while I pray. I will not doubt that God has the power to work; but more so that God will choose to work through my prayers. But He has told me to pray. He has told me that He answers prayers and that His will is always for the good of those that love him. And when I can remember those things, I will also occasionally pray with great faith.

But whether in weakness of doubt, or in greatness of faith, I will pray. And I will trust that God knows how and when to save His people in the best way physically and spiritually and emotionally possible.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Can God Really Use Me? Acts 11:24

Original Picture By: SilhouetteFxBXzit.svg: Xzit derivative work: Ricardo P. (SilhouetteFxBXzit.svg) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I've found that the doubt that often creeps into the minds of followers of God is not typically the doubt that we think of. Yes, every Christian will have questions that they must wrestle with about the supposed "evidence" of the Big Bang versus the evidence of the Genesis account. Yes, every Christian will struggle with how to know whether the Bible is the reliable Word of God or just another book. Yes, every Christian will need to question and reaffirm their reasons for believing that Jesus really was...and is who He said He is- the Son of God.

But, for most of us, I've come to believe those doubts only surface from time to time. I believe there is actually a bigger doubt that is almost always our constant companion. The doubt that I am speaking of really has nothing to do with the power of God- at least not at first glance. But it has everything to do with doubting the the power of God working through us.

We feel inadequate for the task God has given us. We feel incapable of accomplishing the Great Commission. We feel unprepared to teach the souls in front of us. We feel...small. And while we recognize the bigness of God, we just can't help fearing the smallness of us. And the enemy paralyzes us with that fear so that if he cannot have our souls, he can at least keep the souls that we might have reached if only we had faith.

But as Paul would say later, "God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline" (2 Tim. 4:7). Therefore, I'd like you to consider Barnabas because what Luke recorded about him in Acts 11 sums up all that is necessary for us to be used by God in very big ways.
  1. Barnabas was a good man. I want to be careful how we look at this fact because in my work with teens, I have found that we have somehow paralyzed our young Christian brothers and sisters with the idea that they must first be good in order to be saved. That is imply not what the Bible teaches. We are saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8). But the fact that are have been saved, then puts us into a position where we can then become good! How many people have been content to be forgiven of their sins without pursuing the reality that God promises of being freed from our sins!? Barnabas was fit for God's work, not because he deserved it based on his goodness, but because he pursued goodness as one of the fruits of the Spirit that had been given him as a pledge! And that fact leads us straight to the second thing Luke tells us about him.
  2. Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit. On the surface, we might balk at the idea of our having responsibility in the Spirit filling our lives. After all, baptized believers are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). If the Spirit is a gift, then is there anything that we are supposed to do? Wouldn't that defeat the whole idea of a gift being something that is simply given? But then Paul said in Eph. 5:18, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,..." (Emph mine). Paul's command to not get drunk on wine which leads to dissipation, or wastefulness, could also easily be applied to the many other things we get "drunk" on- think sex, pleasure, entertainment, accumulation of things or of power, etc. A life that is focused on those things is also dissipation; it is wasteful! Instead, we are to be "filled with the Spirit!" Perhaps part of our role in being filled with the Spirit as Barnabas was is that we are very conscious not to live wastefully and not to fill our lives with all of these other things that leave no room for the Spirit to take up residence in us and fill us up! How can we be full of the Spirit when we are already filled to the max with sports, or TV, or social media, or other unrepented of sins that we are not willing to let go of? In fact, those "pet sins" that we think nothing of might be another thing to look at in our quest to be filled with the Spirit. Are we not blocking access to the Holy Spirit in our lives when we live in such a way that we are grieving Him? Look at the walks that are contrasted in Ephesians 4:17-32. If we are "walking as the gentiles walk," then we are grieving the Holy Spirit of God! No wonder we feel inadequate to the tasks God has placed before us!
  3. Barnabas was full of faith. And this where the rubber meets the road, and really it is back where we began. I have no doubt that Barnabas' faith in God included the faith that God could use even him. I wonder if Jesus' rebuke of Peter's lack of faith- when Peter began to walk on the water and subsequently began to drown- was more about Peter's doubt that he could walk on water by the power of God than that Jesus could walk on water. After all, Peter could still see visual proof that Jesus could do it. It was his fear of his own safety that caused him to sink. But though we say that we have faith in God, if we limit His power and ability to work in the world to only working through others who don't have our flaws and weaknesses, then we don't doubt ourselves after all. We doubt God.
May we be a people that are good. Not so we can be saved or so we can keep our salvation. But may we be good because we are saved. May we be a people that are full of the Holy Spirit because we have made room for the Holy Spirit to fill us. May we be a people that are full of faith in God...including faith in God in us.

And may a great many more people be brought to the Lord in our day as they were in Barnabas'.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Changes Need to be Made- Acts 11: 4, 18

Ahh, “change.” Now there is a dirty 6-letter word! No matter what situation you find yourself in- home, school, work, church, or a road detour for construction!- change is always hard to get through. You know, some changes are just for the sake of change. Those are usually better left undone if there is more than one person involved! On the other hand, some changes are good and necessary. But when there is more than one person involved, how we go about implementing change is just as important as the change itself. I doubt you will have to dig too far into your memory to find examples of the truth that statement!

I think Peter’s example of how he handled the criticism of the Jerusalem church should be used as a textbook for change. Last week, we discussed the context of the change. For the first time since the establishment of Judaism, Peter and a handful of other Jewish Christians were forced to acknowledge that the gospel was for all and not just for the small nation of Israel. God went to great lengths to convince Peter that the drastic change of allowing gentiles in with the people of God was a good and necessary change for the church. But when Peter came back to Jerusalem in chapter 11, he was attacked and he was criticized.

At that point, he had a decision to make. He could: 1. reverse his decision and give in to the criticism. 2. Push through and put the critical church in its place. 3. Do exactly as he did. And what was it that he did?
“Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story:…” (Acts 11:4).
He told of the vision God had given him. He told of his own reluctance to obey. He told of God’s providence in bringing the men from Cornelius at exactly the time his vision ended. And he told of the movement of the Spirit that confirmed God’s desire to bring the gentiles into the church. And when the church heard all of those things?
“When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:18)
If something cannot be explained in clear terms of what God has done in the past and what He is doing in the present, then the change does not need to be made. If it violates some teaching of Jesus or of the apostles as found in the New Testament, then it needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. But if there is a need that is going unmet....If there is an entire group of people that is not being given the chance to respond to the gospel, then by all biblical means, changes need to be made to invite those people into the kingdom of our Lord! But when those changes are discussed, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE have the courage to explain the Godly and biblical reasons for them. Make it clear to all that the purpose of the change is not for change itself. It is for the purpose of God! Be calm. Be patient. But be strong. Don't back down because of criticism, and don't flare up because of self-righteousness. 

May we have the wisdom to know the difference in necessary and unnecessary change. When we see changes in any parts of our lives that do need to be made and they involve more than just ourselves, may we have the courage to be like Peter and stand strong in our commitment, yet stand humbly in our reasoned explanations. And when someone else proposes a change that we do not like, may we have the courage to evaluate it honestly based on biblical wisdom and prayer like the church who listened to Peter. And may God's kingdom grow and His name be honored because we do.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Imagine a potluck meal with no pork! Acts 10:15

Original Illustration from Treasures of the Bible by Henry David Northrop, 1894
I really like barbecue, so I'm thankful that we've figured out the message of this passage as far as food regulations go. I wonder, however, if we've actually figured out how to apply the people side of the equation in our context today.

Of course we know- at least intellectually- that the gospel is for all. I doubt there are any serious students of the Bible who would honestly try to argue anything other than that. But do we believe it?

And by "believe," what I really mean is do we trust that truth?

The funny thing about this story with Peter is that it was not the first time he had been told that the gospel was intended to go to all the world and not just to the Jews. Consider these very familiar words from Jesus:
"...Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20. Emph. mine)
But Peter was a Jew. And as a Jew he had been taught his entire life that he could not associate with anyone who was not a Jew. In fact, he had likely been taught that he could not even associate with a Jew by birth who was not a Jew in practice. He had also heard Jesus say other words during his ministry.
"These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel." (Mt. 10:5-6)
and to the Canaanite woman begging for help, Jesus said,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Mt. 15:24)
Was it any wonder, then, that Peter had some significant learning to do before he was able to understand that God is no respecter of persons? But when God wants to get a message across about who is and who is not welcome in His kingdom, He knows how to get it done. And therefore as the men sent from the gentile Cornelius are on their way to the house where Peter is staying, Peter is given a vision of unclean animals let down from heaven on a sheet and is commanded to kill and eat. Of course, Peter as a good Jew refuses because he has never eaten anything unclean. But he is reprimanded by the words in verse 15 above. In fact, this same conversation happens three times and just after the third command to not call call impure what God had made clean, the servants of Cornelius knock on the door. I love Peter's response.

First, he invites them into the house, which already would have been a violation of his Jewish upbringing. But he would violate anything that His Lord commanded Him to do because He was convinced that Jesus was Lord and therefore had a better understanding of scripture than Peter. And if the Spirit of the Christ commanded him to view the Old Testament Law differently, then he would obey.

Second, he goes with the men to Cornelius house the next day. You can still hear the hesitation and the uncertainty in Peter's voice even as he is obeying the Spirit's guidance. When he gets to Cornelius' house and finds the group there waiting for him, he says,
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29)
Once Cornelius explains his side of the story of God's working in his home, Peter is finally able to release his inhibitions about viewing people differently- about viewing them as now understands God does.
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10:34-35)
 And from there, he preaches to them about Jesus.

Here is my point. Yes we know that the gospel is for all. But do we trust it? Do we respond- to the addicts and the troubled teens, to the unwed mothers of children, to the alcoholics and the crooked politicians, to the continual and persistent "benevolence cases," indeed to the members of a different denomination!- do we respond to them as if they are truly capable of being reached by God's grace in the same way that we have!?

Or do we sparingly offer a word of scripture without offering an investment of our hearts? Do we offer an invitation "to church" without offering an invitation into our lives when we are the church? Are we content to let "those people" be someone else's project who is more able to relate to "them" or are we actually willing to "let" them be our brothers and our sisters?

What would our churches across America look like if we were all able to "realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right"? How much more diverse would our pews be if once we have been shown that we "should not call anyone impure or unclean" we would follow Peter's example in going to people "without raising any objection" about the unlikelihood of their conversion or the lack of safety in the neighborhood or the dangers of "bad company corrupting good morals."

After all, just think about this. Had God not opened the door so convincingly to the Gentiles, the odds are that you would never have known God's grace as you do today. You, your parents, your children, and your children's children would all still be lost and doomed to die. That is...assuming you are not a Jew. But God did open the way for us into the kingdom of heaven. Will we shut it for someone else because we have now become comfortable as God's chosen people and view the rest of the world as "dogs" just as the Jews did of the gentiles?

I'm not saying it would be easy. Most of us have been raised our entire lives to be slightly wary of anyone different from us. Many of us have even been taught that being in association with "unclean" people will eventually make us unclean ourselves. Just think back to your teenage days and how many lectures you heard about being careful how you pick your friends. I pray that God will give us a vision. Maybe it won't be Peter's vision of a sheet full of pigs and birds and whatever else. But I pray that He will give us a vision. A vision of the greatness of God's grace and the fields that are white unto harvest. And I pray that we will finally respond to it without raising any more objections.

May we readily and joyfully accept the implication of this passage about the gospel being the power of God to salvation for all people just as readily and joyfully as we accept the implication of this passage to fill our plates with bbq!