Early Church History (Acts)

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

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Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8 (NLT)

Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.


 

A good dose of humility solves a whole lot of problems.

You don’t hear much about people pursuing humility. If you do hear about it, the pursuit can seem odd, along the lines of monks cloistered from worldly pursuits or Mother Teresa relocating to Calcutta to serve the poor.

As Christians, however, we are called to incorporate humility into our lives. First of all, we try to keep ourselves humble in an effort to imitate Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Despite being God in flesh, the only way Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up was on the cross, a horrible, painful humiliation preceding his death. He lowered himself for our sakes.

Paul was big on the importance of humility as a way to imitate Jesus. In a different letter, one he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:3-5, NLT.)

Humility is a concept for everyone. Across-the-board humility will be an important idea later in Romans, when Paul tells us about Christians relating to government. In the secular world, leaders often pursue titles and fame to lift themselves up. Christian leaders have a different mandate, however: The best of them are servant leaders, people who sacrifice to help others succeed.

In regard to troubling events of the last couple of weeks in our nation: Lord, give our leaders humble servant hearts, hearts aligned with yours. And as I pray, I have one leader in particular in mind.

Paul also seems to be saying that humility walks hand-in-hand with a second virtue, self-awareness. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? And maybe the most important question: Are you fooling yourself about yourself? He is talking about spiritual and moral strengths and weaknesses, of course.

I have a humorous book titled “Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” Some of it borders on silly, but I like the entry for “Pastor/Priest.” The definition: “A sinner who is so aware of the power of sin in his or her own life that he or she feels called by the Holy Spirit to announce that God loves sinners.”

A call to ministry of any sort is impossible unless the person first becomes acutely aware of his or her own sinfulness. You cannot describe the wonderful flavor of Christ’s living water until you have felt a desperate thirst for forgiveness.

As we search for deeper self-awareness, I should add, once again, how incredibly helpful the Bible is. If we judge ourselves simply by what we consider right and wrong, we are unlikely to make much progress. It’s hard to measure anything with a broken ruler. We need a holy standard.

The climactic moment of the Bible is the story of Jesus, who fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus, God in flesh, is the holy standard for living.

When performing a little self-assessment, I find it useful to turn to Matthew 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus’ teachings about how we are to live our lives as lovers of God and one another.

I’m not talking about doing a simple read-through of what we already know is there. I’m talking about reading it slowly, meditatively, letting each teaching challenge every aspect of our lives. It does not take long for our minds to find humility as we are reminded of our dependence on God for help.

And dependent we are. We cannot save ourselves; that’s why Christ came to die on the cross and save us from sin. On our own, we cannot even respond adequately to Christ’s gift. That’s why the Holy Spirit came after Christ’s ascension to guide us, sustain us and empower us.

An exciting thing happens in the midst of all this humbling self-awareness, though. Despite our inability to measure up, God’s Spirit lifts us up and makes great use of us. The Holy Spirit works among us to assemble the global church into something very much like the body of Christ.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we now do globally what Jesus did with the limited reach of his body. We are called to lovingly declare the growing presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, helping people find truth and eternal life.

No one person can come anywhere close to carrying the load, certainly not in the global church and not even in a small local church. The work of the church is something we do together, and everyone has a role.

Do you know what your role is? You have been made to do something in this effort. If you’ve joined Luminary United Methodist Church, the Holy Spirit is shaping you for the particular work we are doing in the area of Ten Mile, Tennessee.

Paul gives us just a few of many examples. Some of us have to speak God’s truth directly, inspired as God’s grace flows through Scripture, prayer and worshipful practices. Some of us need to be knowledgeable enough to teach. Some need to have those humble hearts—I think of Stephen in Acts—where acts of service flow naturally into declarations of who Christ is, regardless of the cost to the servant.

If you don’t know your role, there are all sorts of ways to discover it. Often, we explore possibilities with tests or in small groups. Start here: Understand the mission of the church clearly—we offer people a relationship with Christ—and then pray for guidance about your role in that mission.

You also can talk to your pastor. As a pastor, I know for certain part of my role is to help those I serve discern God’s calling.

The Stumbling Stone

Romans 9:30-33 (NLT)

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
   a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
   will never be disgraced.”


“What does all this mean?” We cannot forget that as Paul wrote, there was a perplexing development in early Christianity.  Most of Paul’s fellow Jews were not accepting the very Jewish Jesus as their messiah. And even more strangely, non-Jewish people had begun to follow Jesus as Christ in droves.

Paul blamed the Jews’ weak response on theological myopia. The Jews had been blessed by God with the Mosaic law, but had begun to study the minutiae of God’s revelation so closely that they failed to see the fulfillment of its promises and prophecies in the world around them—particularly, the signs and miracles provided by Jesus and the early church leaders.

Have you seen on video or in real life people walking along and staring at their cell phones so intently that they do not see the tree, fountain or bicycle in the way? The Jewish religious leaders were unable to see Jesus for the scrolls in front of their faces.

Jesus was a shock to them, like a jutting rock in an otherwise neat cobblestone path. What the Jews thought of as their orderly world was upset by his arrival, and some people simply don’t like to have the world as they see it disturbed.

Most modern Christians are certainly not Jewish in any real sense of the word, even if some of us might have some Jewish blood. By definition, we have been baptized as followers of Jesus Christ and have pledged ourselves to upholding and living out certain beliefs that go along with being one of Christ’s disciples.

Yet even for us, Jesus can at times be a stumbling stone. When our minds are fully open to what is revealed in Scripture, we are confronted with the reality of who he is, what he has done, what he continues to do, and how all that changes the world. As we explore these truths, we sometimes sense our own nearsightedness. Like the Jews of Paul’s day, we also like our world comfortable and predictable, and I’ll warn you now, Jesus can be a threat to our sense of stability.

Who is he, and what has he done? Well, we believe he is God in flesh, the one who came among us to teach us about divine love. He then demonstrated that love by dying a horrible death in our place for our sins. His resurrection from death proves his work was and is effective. We are restored to God despite our sins.

The very idea that God would come and live even for a short time among his creation, as one of his creation, is bizarre. The idea of God experiencing death for our benefit, even with his ultimate resurrection to overcome that death, is even stranger.

And yet, the story of how God took on flesh and lived and died among us is core to what we believe as Christians. If these ideas were untrue, then Jesus would be just another nice guy whose loving nature got him killed. The lesson would be that we had better learn to seek power and success in this world so we aren’t killed, too.

What does Jesus continue to do, and how does that change the world? It is here we really see Jesus as our stumbling stone. When we talk in past tense about what Jesus did, we make him into a nice little history lesson. Jesus engages us directly, though, in the lives we live now.

Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s true we no longer see him directly. But he said he would send another, and as we’ve already been reminded in Romans by Paul, the Holy Spirit, that third aspect or experience of God, is among us now.

The same Spirit involved in the creation of all things and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb continues to work in us today. I hope most of us who call ourselves Christians have experienced the Spirit at work in our lives in some way. When we sense his presence, we are reminded that the world is changing and the idea of a stable, predictable pattern to life is fiction.

For the world is not the way God wants it to be. It is not to be a place of sickness and dying; it is not to be a place where evil exists. Christ’s redeeming work moves us toward real stability, the kind of comfort and predictability we crave—eternal life with God.

Yes, Paul keeps going back to core Christian beliefs. It’s because we need to keep hearing them. The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing now, through the Holy Spirit, should inform and modify every decision we make in our lives.

I am too often disappointed in myself when it comes to decision making. Oh , how easy it is to make decisions without keeping core Christian truths before me, letting them shape my every move.

Frankly, I also am often disappointed in our church, both locally and on a larger scale, when I see how we fail to keep these core, scripturally defined truths before us in everything we do. A time will come when we look back and be deeply saddened as we consider how we missed opportunities to live into the truth of who Christ is and what he is doing.

In short, we are failing to turn the world upside down. If you’ll look in Acts 17, you’ll see that is the accusation made against the early Christians—turning the world upside down with the message of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing. And I don’t think we should be satisfied until we are accused by the world of doing the same.

During the next couple of weeks, Paul is going to help us understand more clearly why it is so important that we carry this stumbling stone called Jesus into the world to interrupt the lives of others.

 

Day of Adoption

It is Pentecost Sunday, and we of course should not gather on this day without hearing the story of the Holy Spirit falling upon a small group of Christ’s followers, birthing our Savior’s church in the process.

The Spirit’s falling that day had immediate, obvious effects, of course. There was an ongoing miracle, the miracle that Christ’s followers could declare him Lord and Savior regardless of the language spoken by the audience. The Spirit also filled Peter so he could preach the first full, great Christian sermon. If you keep reading in Acts, you hear much of that sermon, and you see the results—more than 3,000 in the crowd accepted Jesus as Savior that day.

With that story in mind, I want us to continue our Romans series, where Paul talks about life in the Spirit. What he writes illuminates what we celebrate today and hope to live out every day. We’re going to work our way through our Romans text, Romans 8:15-30, a little at a time.

It begins:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.

My brother and his wife adopted a boy from Haiti a few years ago. They were in relationship with the boy well before the adoption; Chad met the boy we now call Nathaniel while doing medical missionary work in Haiti. Chad and his family continued to visit him and remain in contact with him in other ways while the long adoption process proceeded.

The day the Haitian judge signed the papers changed everything, though. Nathaniel had a new home, one very different from the little orphanage where he lived. He even had a new language to learn. And he had two new people to call Mom and Dad.

The nature of the relationship had changed dramatically. Think of the Christian Pentecost this way: It marks the day of adoption for all believers. Our relationship with God changes because of the Spirit’s very active presence in our lives. We are now on affectionate, familial terms with God as we experience him as the Holy Spirit.

It is not just a matter of knowing by way of creeds and Scripture we are saved. We are now so close to God that the Holy Spirit can whisper directly to our spirits, giving us assurances of salvation. We have been taken into a new home, and the good, perfect Father draws us close and says, “You are mine, and all will be well.”

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

This can be troubling. No one likes to suffer. We are part of a new family now, though. Holy families stick together and work together. There is work to be done in a broken world, one where sin and death still have a lingering hold, causing continuing suffering.

Our older brother in the family, Jesus Christ, suffered mightily in this work to defeat sin and restore all things. We know his death on the cross is enough to restore us to God in full! His resurrection proves it!

We also know his work will be made complete—the astonishing thing is we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are invited to play a role in this family business.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Have you seen those ads on the internet that say, “This will make your jaw drop!” The ads are never for anything very exciting, but this text, properly understood, should make your jaw drop. It asserts something rare in Scripture.

Creation—not just human beings, but all things made, the animals, the grass, the oceans, the stars, everything—longs for the completion of Christ’s work. Everything is broken; everything is suffering because of human sin.

Restored by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted into a powerful task. As we let the Holy Spirit move us toward the time of full renewal, the world is literally watching, straining toward the day of remaking and resurrection.

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

Do you believe the promise and trust the promise enough to feel the longing Paul describes?

Oh, for that day of resurrection renewal to come! Oh, to see the glory we know we have been granted as children of God! The idea is so powerful, so beautiful, that we can find ourselves at a loss regarding how to pray for such a thing.

But it’s okay. The Spirit senses our longings, and when we let him, he can plead our emotions and desires to God when we cannot put them into words.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

Sometimes these ideas get abused. People read “God causes everything to work together for the good” and interpret it to mean God makes evil occur so some good can come of it later. That is not what Paul means.

Instead, Paul is saying God will take the results of sin and use even the worst horrors to the benefit of the kingdom. That must drive Satan crazy. Can you hear him complaining? “Every time I think I’ve got those humans whipped and beaten, God comes along and turns my work against me.”

Our dear Father, Abba, wins, and through the work of our dear older brother, we as co-heirs in the family win. The horror of the cross has turned into resurrection glory. The terrible things we see and suffer will dissolve into glory one day, too; they will be completely reversed, undone, and every tear will be wiped away.

That is the promise the Holy Spirit whispers to us every day as we work with his guidance and strength in us.

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

The Returning Fire

Acts 2:1-21

Fire dancing on the heads of the first Christians—that’s the primary image I get from Pentecost. It was not a burning fire, however. It was a spiritual fire entering them. Jesus sent them fire for their bellies.

And did it ever work. A people who had moved from cowering in fear to quietly praying and waiting suddenly ran into the streets declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Crowds gathered; Peter preached. Three thousand new believers came to Christ that day.

Would you like to see something like that happen today? Would you like to see a returning fire in the bellies of American Christians? Would you like to have to figure out how to handle dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new Christians in our community all at once? (Yes, there are ways to organize for such events.)

Lord knows, we need such an awakening. I suspect the Lord simply waits on us to let it happen once again.

What led to that astonishing moment remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see how we can open ourselves to a new, fiery experience of the Holy Spirit.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Stop cowering in fear. Like Jesus’ earliest followers, you’ve had some experience of the resurrection. Yeah, you didn’t see the risen Christ or see him ascend into heaven, but something brings you here. Some experience of Christ in your life, some sense of connection via the Holy Spirit, draws you.

As I said before, Jesus’ followers trusted their experiences, let fear go and began praying. What would happen to us if we went to praying, alone and in groups? I don’t just mean on Sunday, with congregants lifting up names and situations and the pastor saying words. I mean praying in our homes, in our workplaces, morning, noon and night, until we find ourselves living in a continuous state of prayer.

Something will happen. Something will happen. Of that, I have no doubt. New convictions and new gifts from the Spirit will come. At that point, we would be truly different from the world and even from most of the churches around us.

From there, the model is kindergarten simple, as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

With the returning fire visibly working among us, Christian show and tell should become easy. We naturally will show more love, grace and forgiveness. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by simply seeing actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what we have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw in the believers; some will always sneer. Peter used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.

Prayer. Show and tell. Let’s try it. We will see the fire return again and again.

How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?