Tag: Book of Acts

Every Kind of People: Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Every Kind of People: Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 12, 2019

Read Acts 13:1-3 and 14:8-18 (CEB)

Reflection

faces-2679755_1920It takes every kinda people
To make what life’s about, yeah
Every kinda people
To make the world go ’round*

 

 

Benny is someone you just can’t forget.

Benny is a man in his mid-60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the congregation in Minneapolis where I once served.  Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church.  He seems to always have a smile on his face.

But Benny can be a handful.  For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice.  This means when he talks, everyone hears.  Which meant you might not want to share your deep dark secrets with him.  Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing.  But you see, Benny also talks like this in worship.  Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice.  When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service.  

Sometimes sitting next to Benny was Norman, a man in his 50s.  Norman is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on the edge of sanity.  It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.

After a while, we learned something about Norman; he was a budding artist.  He drew these futuristic drawings in black and white and also in color. They were jaw-droppingly beautiful.

What is wonderful to see is that both Benny and Norman are considered full participants in the community.  While I was a pastor at this congregation, no one ever complained about Benny or Norman’s antics at time.  People learned to roll with the punches with these two.  I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Benny and Norman and were not embarrassed by them.

The text brings up several points to consider:

First, the church at Antioch is diverse. Acts 13:1-3 is just three verses and it lists some of the leadership of the church in the city of Antioch. At first glance, it just seems like a lot of names, mostly of people we don’t really know.  There’s Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul also known as Paul. What’s interesting is that all of these people have a different background.  We have Lucius of Cyrene, who is probably a non-practicing Jew since there was no temple in town. Then we have Simeon who is also called Niger, possibly a North African. Then there was Manaen. He had some kind of connect to Herod Antipas the current vassal king of Israel and the killer of John the Baptist.  And let’s not forget Paul. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen a deacon who worked to feed the widows and orphan. If you want to talk about a diverse congregation, this was it.  What does it mean that this church is diverse and what does it say about our modern churches? Are we open to all people, even those like Benny and Norman?

Second, this is a local congregation.  This is not the “headquarters” in Jerusalem. Peter and the other disciples are not here.  This a local congregation far away from the center wanting to do mission.  What message is here for the local congregations of the 21st century?

Third, the congregation sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  As the congregation was doing mission, they wanted to seek what God wanted them to do and the Holy Spirit answered! What would happen if in our own churches if we listened to what the Spirit is saying?

Fourth, the calling of Paul and Barnabas shows that the call to ministry is not just for pastors. The church has made a big mistake in making it seem like vocation or call, is only for those interested in ordained ministry.  But Paul and Barnabas were just members of the congregation and they were chosen by the Holy Spirit. In countless churches in every setting, the Holy Spirit is calling people to ministry.  Are we listening to the Spirit and encouraging those called to ministry?

In Acts 14:8-18, Paul and Barnabas are in the city of Lystra.  They meet a man who can’t walk.  Paul can tell this man has the faith to be healed and does just that.  When the crowds see that the man who couldn’t walk now walking, they decide that Paul and Barnabas must be gods.  Since they were speaking in a local tongue and not in Greek, Paul couldn’t immediately understand what they were saying. 

Why did the crowd think Paul and Barnabas were gods?  And why were they considered Zeus and Hermes? There is a folktale about Zeus and Hermes visiting a town in the area. No one in the town recognized them and they weren’t treated with hospitality.  Because of this, the gods destroyed the town.  Having heard such stories, the townsfolk didn’t want to make the same mistake when they heard of the miraculous news.

While Paul is the major character in Acts, here he is playing second fiddle to Barnabas who was considered the chief God, Zeus.  Why wasn’t Paul considered Zeus?  Hermes was considered a messenger of the Gods and messengers tended to speak more than the gods. 

But the important note in this text is that the crippled man already had faith that God would heal him.  How?  How did he know that the God of Israel would save him?  What Paul, the early church and the modern church learn is that sometimes mission isn’t about bringing God someplace, but going to where God is already at work.  Paul could heal the man not because he had great power, but because the man believed that this God could work a miracle.  As the modern church, we need to learn that mission is as much seeing where God is at work than it is going where there is need.

The church is made up of “Every kind of people.”  The people who made up the church in Antioch were people from various parts of society.  The church is made up of people like Benny and Norman.  Paul and Barnabas went to foreign places preaching the gospel to every kind of culture. Are we making sure that our churches are places where “every kind of people” are in mission together?

 

Questions

Who are the Bennys and Normans in your church? How are they treated?

How does your church do local mission?

Have you ever felt called by God to something that was not ordained ministry?

Read Matthew 10:40-42. How do Jesus’ words relate to today’s text?

 

Notes:

“Every Kind of People.” Sung by Robert Palmer, written by Andy Fraser. © Universal Music Publishing Group, 1978.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Acts of the Spirit: Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Acts of the Spirit: Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 5, 2019

Reflection

architectural-design-architecture-building-632476
Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

What is the Spirit up to?

If the above sentence made you scratch your head, you aren’t alone. Among mainline Protestant Christians, there is a lot of questions about the Holy Spirit. We might understand God and Jesus, but the Spirit?  We just don’t get it and if we are aware of Pentecostals, it might just freak us out.

But the book of Acts is really about the work of the Spirit.  Yes, it is about the beginnings of the church, but you would not have the church if it wasn’t because of the third person in the Trinity.  In Acts 8, we see Phillip moved and guided by the Spirit to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch. In today’s text, we see the Spirit moving in two people; Cornelius and Peter.

Cornelius is a Roman and a God-fearer.  He is generous towards the Jews and prays to God.  He is visited by an angel that tells him that God has heard his prayers and that he is to send for Peter.  Cornelius obeys and has some men make the journey to where Peter is.

At the same time, Peter is up on the roof of a home and has a vision.  He sees a sheet full of unclean animals and was told to kill and eat.  Peter was an observant Jew and knew that he couldn’t eat the animals.  The voice tells Peter what was God made clean is not unclean.  God had transformed animals that he couldn’t eat into animals he could eat.

Peter hears that he is being called by Cornelius’ men and goes with them to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and those gathered in his home. Peter ends by professing that God shows no partiality.

God in the Spirit was at work in Peter and in Cornelius.  Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit sends people hither and yon to preach the Gospel.  The good news goes from Jerusalem to the far-flung places in the Roman Empire and that happened all because of the Spirit.

As many churches struggle to figure out their future in a changing environment, it is always important to figure out what and where the Spirit is at work.  Too often, congregations think it’s all on them to be a witness in our communities.  But notice that the Spirit was already at work in Cornelius when Peter is asked to go visit him. Phillip was told by the Spirit to visit the eunuch. As congregations, we need to discern where the Spirit is moving and then follow.  It’s not about having a great worship service, but it is about the willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit.  But be warned, when Peter says God shows no partiality, we should prepare ourselves to be led to places we never expected to go, to meet people we never expected to meet.

 

What is the Spirit up to in your church? In your community?  In your world?

Questions

What did it mean that God didn’t make anything that is unclean?  What have you thought was unclean?

Who was converted in this story?  Peter? Cornelius? Or both?

How would you describe the Holy Spirit?

Read the story of Phillip and the Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.  How is this story similar to Peter and Cornelius? How is it different?

What does it mean to see what the Spirit is up to? How is that lived out in your life? In your church?

 

Notes:

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Final Instructions: Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday

Final Instructions: Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
************
                Churches that follow the Christian Year will be either observing the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the day of Ascension (which does not fall on Sunday). In either case the first reading comes from Acts 1. The text for Ascension is the first eleven verses, while the Seventh Sunday texts come from Acts 1:15-26, which contains the call of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth Apostle. The Matthias story is an intriguing one, but it is here in verse 8 of Acts 1 that the foundation for the Book of Acts is laid. So, I will address the first reading for the Day of Ascension.
                Luke invites us to imagine gathering with Jesus after forty days of post-Easter appearances for final instructions prior to Jesus’ physical departure from the disciples, which opens a new phase of Luke’s Gospel story. Chapter one of the Book of Acts marks a point of transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the Spirit-empowered mission of the church. The message for this moment in time is to “wait.” Now is the time for the Spirit of to come down upon the believers, so that they might bear witness to the Gospel, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. While it was good to be with Jesus in the flesh, it is time to leave the womb and enter the world, bearing the message of salvation.
Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Acts 8:26-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

***************

Here lies one of the most unique passages in scripture. It involves two primary characters—Philip, one of the Seven called by the church to serve tables (Acts 6) and the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is traveling home from Jerusalem by way of the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza (most likely to pick up a ship that would transport him toward home). There is also an angel of God, who sets up a meeting between these two men. Standing behind this encounter is the church’s mission statement found in Acts 1:8. In that verse Jesus tells his followers that when the Spirit comes, they will bear witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and from there to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. Philip has already participated in that expansion by preaching in Samaria, in what was the first outreach of the early church beyond the original core Jewish audience. Now, with this encounter, it appears that the expansion continues, with Ethiopia being opened up to the message of the gospel. But not only that, but there is a word of inclusion of one who had been excluded or at least marginalized.

It would appear that Philip was still in Samaria when the angel appeared to him and directed him to go down to the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. The angel doesn’t tell him what to do or who he would meet. The word is simply go down to the road, and he follows the lead of the angel. Low and behold, when he arrives at the road he hears a man reading the scriptures while riding in a chariot. As for the man in the chariot, we quickly learn that he is Ethiopian, a royal official (apparently, he is the head of the department of the treasury), and he is a eunuch. This latter fact is central to understanding the story. He serves the Queen, the Candace, and being a eunuch, he is trustworthy (see the book of Esther for the role of eunuchs in a royal administration). While he is a trusted official, he is also excluded from the worship of Israel. We’re told that he was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship, but that would have been difficult since, according to Leviticus he would have been excluded from the Temple (Lev. 21:20).

While he might not have been welcomed into the circle of worshipers, he was a student of scripture. We’re not told if he was of Jewish background, a convert, or a God-fearer. Whatever his religious location, in this moment in time he is reading from Isaiah. The passage has messianic implications. In fact, when Philip flags him down and gets in the chariot, the Ethiopian asks Philip about the identity of the one spoken of in the prophecy—is it the prophet or another? That gives Philip the opening he needs to share the gospel. What all he says is not written down. What is noted is that the Ethiopian responded positively to the explanation and went on to ask whether he could be baptized. After all, there was a pool of water by the side of the road. What prevents him from being baptized? Philip, who had already baptized Samaritans, without authorization, can’t see why he should withhold the water in this case. So, they get out of the chariot, go down to the pool, and Philip baptizes him. As soon as the man comes out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away, delivering him to another area needing evangelizing.

The reading opens up a number of questions, including the question of who authorizes baptism. It’s not in Philip’s job description, which involves table service. But Philip has a bigger sense of call, and his ministry is affirmed by the Spirit. How do you say no to the Spirit of God? Then there is the status of the Eunuch. We know something about the barriers to his inclusion, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem here. Philip doesn’t seem to care. He just shares the good news, and when the request for baptism comes, he goes for it. There is here an immediacy to the sacramental act that many of us might be uncomfortable with. It’s true that over time, the churches moved from immediate baptism to prolonged instruction prior to baptism. I don’t know if either is the correct method, but at least in the New Testament baptism accompanies profession of faith rather quickly.

Perhaps the message here concerns the work of the Holy Spirit, who in Acts seems intent on pushing boundaries. It’s not that there are no rules or rites of inclusion, but they are not as narrowly drawn. Better yet, they are expansive. They force a person to fit a particular set of cultural expectations, even as one experiences a change in identity. That is, the man remains an Ethiopian and a eunuch, but through his baptism into Christ, he becomes a new creation. That which had once defined him spiritually no longer does.

We as church are often content to remain within our circles of comfort. We tend to sit in the same pew; sit with the same people at coffee hour; talk with the same people after church. We don’t mean to snub the new-comer, we’re just comfortable with our context. The Spirit of God, however, has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones. With the case of this encounter, Willie James Jennings notes that this is a “story of divine compulsion.” In other words, Philip doesn’t initiate the encounter, God does. Jennings writes further: “The Spirit is driving a disciple where the disciple would not have ordinarily gone and creating a meting that without divine desire would not have happened. This holy intentionality sets the stage for a new possibility of interaction and relationship” [Acts: Belief, p. 87]. In Jennings reading of Acts, he reminds us that in the history of the church, too often we have combined the invitation to discipleship with a vision of “civilization” that has nothing to do with the Gospel. So, here in this story, we have an invitation to celebrate our differences, knowing that realm of God is a diverse realm, and through the Spirit’s work, we are brought into relationship with each other.

As we hear this story of a divinely set up encounter between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, we are invited, in my reading, to enter the lives of others, people who are different. We enter their lives, sharing the good news of Jesus, but without expecting them to become “just like me.” But, together, in our differences and diversity, we move toward the realm of God, each being transformed by the Spirit (not by any cultural visions). In the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the differences include ethnicity and sexual identity. These are not changed by the encounter, but the heart of this man is drawn toward Jesus, into whose life he is baptized. From there he rejoices in his encounter with Jesus.

Without any further ado, Philip is caught up by the Spirit and deposited at Azotus, where he begins preaching again as he journeys toward Caesarea. As for the Ethiopian, nothing more is said. One can assume that he returned to Ethiopia, where like so many others in Luke-Acts, he shared the good news. While Christianity was officially established in the fourth century CE, could a see have been planted much earlier, all because of a Spirit led encounter?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.