Sunday, May 26, 2019

Looking in all the Wrong Places

Acts 16:9-15
One day in the middle of April about 14 years ago. I was tired. I was very uncomfortable. My feet were sore and swollen; in fact I had not worn real shoes in over two months, and was forced to either wear my Tevas for a pair of flip flops everywhere I went. I am sure those of you who have known me for years will find this hard to believe, but I at this particular time in my life I would preach in flip-flops. I had been to the hospital, oh, I don’t know, 5 times already and had been sent home each and every time. So I was well beyond being the “the girl who cried wolf.”  To top it all off I was feeling this way 8 days longer than I had expected, because I was naive and thought “due dates” actually meant something.
I had been tired of this whole grand adventure 6-8 weeks earlier. These final 8 days had seemed simply and absolutely unbearable. I woke up that morning, just like every morning an uncountable number of days, feeling worse than I had on any day previously. I knew that if things did not move forward by tomorrow I would be “evaluated” and a plan would be put in place, but having to endure one more day seemed nearly unthinkable.
Everything I did that morning seemed unthinkable. I remember stopping at one point in the day and catching myself on a door jamb and thinking I can not move. I am just going to sit down right here and not move until I am done with this. Later that morning I was on the phone with my mother and making Mike an early lunch before he headed off to class and I snapped his head off for apparently no reason (it was at this point when my mother began to wonder if today would be the day, but my mother did not say anything to me at the time).
After Mike headed off to class I layed down on the couch and became instantly aware of exactly how uncomfortable I had become. But being a woman who had been to the hospital too many times, I ignored it and tried to take a nap. Around 2 I decided that perhaps this was serious and called my husband who by that time was so intimately aware of what it meant when Kaza thought that “this is it,” that he finished teaching class and promptly showed up at the house at 3:30, finding me there obviously in labor and apologized for waiting. We still were not sure if we should risk going into the hospital only to be sent home again and waited until about 5 to call my Dr and ask what we should do. She told us to hold off a little longer. At this time we decided to watch a movie someone had lent us. I don’t remember much about that movie. Sometime after the movie was over I can remember looking over at Mike, absolutely exasperated and asking, “What exactly are we waiting for?” To which he responded, “I think we are waiting for that.” 
We loaded ourselves up in the car and started on the 20 min ride to the hospital. I had never thought that 20 minutes was too far to be from the hospital, but let me tell you when you are in full labor, and seat-belted into a vehicle the thing can not move fast enough to make even a short trip to hospital bearable. I was checked into the hospital, and ready to go by about 8:30pm. I remember at about 10:30 or 11:00 I thought, I am really going to have this baby today!  And the fact of the matter is I was only slightly off. Most first labors are slow ordeals because this is the first time your body has done this, so I did not actually have Cidra on the 25th of April in fact she was born at 12:56 am on April 26th.
One of the things I never knew before I had children was that mothers swap these stories in varying degrees of detail countless times over the course of their lives. Mothers love to tell people the stories of how their children came into this world. And the glory of it is no two stories are the same, every mother has stories about how their children came to be a part of their family. It is something all mothers have in common but each story is unique. Sharing these stories brings us joy and fills our hearts with the inexpressible feelings we had the first time we held that wonderful little miracle of God in our arms.
As I read over this story in the book of Acts this week, I could not help but think that this is yet another birth story. Acts is full of birth stories. Through the account of Peter and Cornelius and the sending of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey we have traced the steps that lead to the birth of the Gentile Church and here with Lydia we find the birth of the Church at Philippi. This is the birth story for one of Paul’s first, most beloved, and most supportive churches. And it begins with the story of Lydia, well like most birth stories it begins a little before that.
Last week we looked at the passage where Peter explained his actions at Cornelius’s house to the council at Jerusalem. Quite a lot has happened since the Jerusalem council decided to heed the message God gave to Peter, concerning the salvation of the Gentiles. At this point in early church history, Paul has already finished his First missionary journey.”   Things had gone so well on that journey that the “Gentile issue” had once again been brought before the council of Jerusalem this time the question was not whether they can be saved or filled with the Spirit but whether or not non-Jewish converts are required to live by the laws God gave to the Jews through Moses. The issue was greatly debated and after a most excellent speech given by Paul concerning salvation by grace, convincing the entirety of the church that “looking like a Jew” was not something they should expect of gentile the believers. The church sent Paul and Silas and several others with a letter to the gentile churches to let them know of their decision. It is with this letter in hand which Paul sets out on what is often called Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul delivered his letter to the believers in Antioch and the people there rejoiced at the church’s decision. From there Paul headed to Asia Minor, but all along the way his path seemed to be “blocked.” It is at this point, Paul has the vision described in this text. Paul has been trying to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Asia, but in this dream in which he sees a man from Macedonia, which is basically in the opposite direction of which he has been going. This man pleads with Paul asking for Paul to help “us.”  Immediately Paul abandons his journey through Asia Minor and heads to Macedonia.
Those of us who so happen to be of European descent, we like to make a big deal out of this change of course for Paul. God’s call for Paul to go to Macedonia is almost as important to Christians of European decent and our Christianity, as God’s call to Peter to accept the Gentile believers. This is because this marks a change in the movement of the Gospel from going primarily to Mediterranean, locals into what is now modern day Europe.  People, like me, who can trace their ancestry from European peoples, find it very exciting that God called Paul to bring the truth of Jesus Christ to our ancestors’ way back in the first century of the Church. And in truth it probably is an important move historically which ultimately brought the Gospel to our fair shores here in the USA.
But I am not sure it is any more exciting than Philip taking the gospel to Ethiopia and converting that entire country. Or Thomas taking the long trek to India and bringing the gospel to the peoples of that land. In reality it is just another step in fulfilling the call God placed upon all believers to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. The fact of the matter is through Paul, through Thomas, through Philip and through many others the tight circle of believers who originated in Jerusalem was ever expanding throughout the first century.
Paul is trying to do one thing. Paul is trying to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ in one direction but it is simply not working. And it is at this point that God gives Paul a vision. A vision of a man from Macedonia, and so at this man’s request Paul sets out to Macedonia. He gets to Macedonia and came to the city of Philippi, you know Philippi, many of us have read Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, more commonly known as the book of Philippians.
Paul gets to Philippi and because it is a Roman city there is no easily found synagogue, so he wanders outside of the city gates and finds a place of prayer. There is a group of women who have gathered there. He approaches the group and begins to speak to them. The scriptures do not tell us what Paul and his companions say to these women, but what they had to say must have struck a cord with at least one them. One of these women, named Lydia, is a God fearer. That is to say she was a proselytite, a person who was not Jewish by birth but believed in and worshipped God. She listened eagerly to what Paul had to say and was soon his first convert in Macedonia, making this woman the first person to become a part of the church which would eventually form there in Philippi. Paul goes toward Philippi looking for a Macedonian man and instead finds a woman.
Not only was Lydia Paul’s first convert in Philippi but she would become the missionary’s benefactor giving him a place to live and a base of operations as he continued to work in her town and found the church which would soon arise there.
Paul was trying to go to Asia and instead God called him to go to Macedonia. God sent Paul a vision in which Paul was called to Macedonia by a man begging for his help. When Paul arrived he did not find this man, instead he found a group of women and it is out of this group of women where Paul finds his first convert.
What amazes me is that not once does Paul skip a beat. He tries and tries to go to Asia and bring the good news of the gospel there and he is thwarted at every turn and then God says, "You know that is not really where I want you to go. I want you to go to Macedonia instead. And Paul is like, “Ok, I’ll go to Macedonia.”  God gave Paul a vision of a man calling him to Macedonia, Paul arrives there and the only people he can find to speak to are a bunch of women, so he preaches to the women. Then it is a woman named Lydia, not a man, who is his first convert. In fact his first two converts are women it is not until after he is jailed and witnesses to his jailor do the scriptures tell us of a man who comes to believe because of Paul’s witness in Macedonia. Paul has one thing in mind and God keeps handing him something different. Paul is not discouraged or distraught that things are not working out they way he imagined them to work out.
So many times when we are doing the work God has called us to do, we get our own understanding of things. We have a plan. We have it all worked out in our heads, how things will work out and as life unfolds, as time goes on, things do not work out the way we imagined them to go. We know God called us to the work of the kingdom; we know our plans are good solid plans. We know these are good things to do. But things do just not seem to go “our” way.
Going to Asia was a good idea. Paul knew God called him to bring the good news to the Gentiles and Asia is just full of them, but things were just not working out there. He tried several times in several different places but it seems God was blocking his every move. And God sends him in a completely different direction.
Paul does not get upset, he does not get discouraged. He does not spout on and on about how God had pulled a fast one on him changing the plans on him at the last minute. He just shakes his head, changes direction and heads off in nearly the opposite direction he had wanted to go and goes to the place God called him to go.
Paul gets there and the people who start accepting the truth of the gospel are not the people he had envisioned. He goes to because a man has called to him across the sea, when he arrives the first and only ones he can find to hear him is a group of women and it is two women who hear and believe first. These were not the kind of believers he had come here to convert. He did not look at what he had and say, “What kind of church can I have with these people?”  Paul took the converts which God brought to him and accepted them and kept on keeping on.
Too often we look at what we have. We look at what God has placed right in front of us and we become discouraged. What can I do with a widow woman who does nothing with her life save sell frivolous material and a crazy sooth-saying slave girl (who was his second convert)?  What kind of church can I start with these two?  Paul looked at what he had and was encouraged instead of discouraged.
Sometimes God is doing amazing things right in front of us, amazing things among us and we look at these little miracles and say to ourselves, “what good is that?” “We really are not any better now than we were before.”  Instead of being encouraged that God is working in ways which we ourselves could never have envisioned, we get discouraged because things are not “going our way,”  which should not at all be a problem when we are trading “our way” for “God’s way.” We had plan, a vision of how things would go and they are going a different way. Things are not going how we envisioned them to go and we get upset, we get discouraged. We downgrade God’s miracles. We don’t see the miracles and the ground work God is laying, which will help us to do amazing things in the future.
Think about the work God must have done before Paul even arrived in Macedonia, in the heart and life of this woman in order for her to already be a God-fearer and be ready to hear the good news of the Gospel. Not to mention that through her God provided someone who had the ways and means to support and take care of Paul, while he worked to start the church there in Philippi. Lydia might literally not have been who Paul envisioned when he headed to Macedonia, but she was exactly what he needed as he was beginning his ministry there. She was open; she was ready to hear the message Paul had to bring. She had the money and a large enough house to give him a place to stay and room which he could use as his base of operations.
I cannot think of the times in my life when things did not seem to be going the way I wanted them to go. I cannot list all of the times when I saw how God’s plans were laying out before me and I scratched my head trying to figure out what in the world was going on. And I have to admit, at times I got discouraged, at times I was positive the whole thing was unraveling before me. It felt to me almost as if God had taken me somewhere and was leaving me there. Giving me a little wave, saying, well I think you can handle things from here. I am sure you have got it all handled and leaving me there to figure things out on my own.
There have been times when I knew God was leading me and suddenly I saw how things were working out and was positive God had tricked me. This was not what I had bargained for; this was not the way things should be working. I have to confess to you all sometimes when I have felt this way; I was not as gracious as Paul. I whined and complained and told God just how alone and abandoned I felt. Told God how I thought that THIS was not how “we” had agreed things would go. And you know when I have reacted this way to God working out God’s will in my life and the lives of those around me, when I have been discouraged by God’s plan and how it did not line up with my plan, things did not turn out so well. Usually, I ended up not only being discouraged but also hurt and frustrated, because in the end I was working against God’s plan and not with it.
But let me also tell you that at other times I can say I have been a little bit more like Paul. I have, for some reason, been able to see the hand of God at work even when it did not seem that God was working in the ways I would have wished for God to work. And instead of being discouraged I thanked God for working in ways which I could not have even imagined and have accepted the work of God as the best and seen the glory and the grace and wonder of God’s plan. And you know, at these times, when I have accepted God’s work and accepted God’s plan absolutely wondrous, miraculous things have happened.
Paul accepted the change of plans which took him to Macedonia, Paul accepted his first unexpected converts and saw the work and the hand of God all along the way. And the church there in Philippi became one of his most faithful churches which supported him all through out his life and throughout his journeys. The church he founded there in Philippi is one to which he speaks most kindly and most encouraging because it becomes one of the stronger churches in the early church. The work there did not begin the way Paul would have wanted it to, nothing in that journey went the way he had planned but because he accepted the work and the hand of God, even when it did not make sense to him, the work which he did there in Philippi exceeded any expectations Paul could ever have had for it.
When we trust God, go where God calls for us to go, do what God calls for us to do and trust God’s work all along the way, amazing things happen. The early church is story after story of people trusting God in unexpected circumstances. And time and time again the church grows and blossoms and God is able to so amazing things through people. I know that the work God did in the early church is not limited to first century Christianity. God wants to work through us here in Cambridge as well. We might not always get the results we had hoped for. We may not always see God working in the ways we planned for God to work but WHEN we see God working we need to trust God’s work. We need to trust God’s plan and accept the work and the plan God is laying out for us. Take what God gives to us and KNOW that God’s plan is the best plan, that God’s work is the best work and KNOW that when WE go where God calls for us to go and do what God calls for us to do, God will do amazing things in us and through us to further God’s kingdom.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

No One is Left Out

Acts 11:1-8 
So two weeks ago we heard the first part of this story, but as with most important things, it is worth repeating. The passage I preached on two weeks ago is where we find the beginning of this story. There we learn how Cornelius, was gentile, who believed in God. He was praying when God told him to send for Peter. Peter was praying when God after seeing a strange vision in which God told him to eat a bunch of things God had forbidden for Jews to eat way back at Mount Sinai when God gave the people the Torah, the people Cornelius sent show up. Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house, preaches the good news of Jesus Christ. Everyone believes and the Holy Spirit fills them all and Peter, realizing what the vision was all about, baptizes them all and they have a big feast to celebrate.
But now, all the rest of the apostles and all the believers in Jerusalem have heard what happened and they are upset. Peter is breaking all the rules. He is going against everything they have been taught. God came to Peter and Peter was able to see God was at work in the lives of these new Gentile believers but none of the others were there and what Peter did challenges how they have come to see the mission of Jesus. And it goes against their understanding of the Law of Moses and all their traditional understanding of the work and the mission of God’s messiah, who they now know is Jesus Christ.
And I can understand where they are coming from. I am a rule follower. I am told by popular psychology that this is partly because since there is nearly 10 years between my elder sister and myself, that although I am a middles child, I am shaped by many of the things that shape eldest siblings. I am told that one of the many characteristics of eldest siblings is that they have a strong penchant for the rules, following them, adhering to them, believing that there is intrinsic value in doing so. I am not sure if popular psychology is often right or not, but I do know that I AM this kind of person. I believe in rules. I believe in following rules. I see value in them and will often follow them even if I disagree with them.
For example, when I was a freshman at ENC, freshmen had a curfew. But that is not really how it worked. You see really only the freshmen women had a curfew. Since most of the freshman women were all in one dorm it was easy for RA’s to keep track of whether or not the freshmen were in the dorm. An RA who signed up for a freshman floor in the freshman dorm knew they had the added responsibility of enforcing curfew. There was a sign in sheet and you had to sign in before curfew to be counted “in”. There were fines for not being in. The women’s dorm was sectioned off by year, all the freshmen in on wing, all the sophomores in another and the Juniors and Seniors were in a separate dorm all together.
The men were all mixed up in their dorms, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors all together. So male RA’s had to keep track and remember which of the students on their floor where freshman and which were not and then had to keep track of the freshmen men and whether or not they came in by curfew. But they didn’t. They said it was too hard to keep track of the freshman guys, so many of them didn’t bother.
The result, freshman women had a curfew, the men did not. It was not fair. But simply because it was not fair did not mean that I disregarded the rule. There were ways around the curfew, you could sign in, be sure you were in when the RA checked and then go back out. You could tell your RA you were going to another gal’s room on another floor or in the sophomore dorm. You could sign in and hope that the RA did not notice you were actually not there. But I did not do any of these things. If I did not make curfew, it was usually because I choose to do so and usually did so because I believed what I was doing was worth the $5 fine for missing curfew. And whenever I missed curfew I set the $5 aside to pay at the end of the semester (because you better believe I was going to pay my own fine and not leave it to be sent as a bill to my parents at the end of the year). I was a rule follower and if I broke the rules I was willing to pay the consequences, in this case the price for doing so.
I understand how comfortable rules can be. When you know the rules and you know where you stand. The world is carefully laid out. There lines to follow, a course set out. You know where you are going, and you know how to get there. The world makes sense; it is easy to get around in. I find a certain amount of freedom, comfort, and security in knowing exactly what I should and should not do. The rules are a nice little box into which everything fits and you know if it does not fit inside of the box then, well it is out. Rules make things that simple, that easy. Everything is either in or out.
Peter was a lot like me. He knew the rules. He liked the rules. They worked for him. He had a box that made sense to him. The rules say you don’t eat pork or shell fish, well then no lobster bisque or bacon egg sandwiches for you. That makes complete sense. He could hold that box, he could comfortably live in that box. If God says that eating shell fish and pigs made you not a child of God, well then it must be true. If the rules say you can’t eat with a Gentile, since whenever you ate with a Gentile you ran the possibility of eating something of which God did not approve, not to mention there was a cultural comradory that eating together implied and acceptance of each other, on a deeper level than simply eating together implies to most of us. But Peter obeyed the rules because they were the rules. They were God’s rules. It was that simple. I understand Peter. The rules were nice they let you know where to go, how to get there and what you needed to do to stay on target.
Simply by going to Cornelius, he was exiting his box, he was breaking the rules. But not only did he go to Cornelius’ house but he also ate with him. Eating anything Cornelius gave him would have been outside of the rules his understanding of what it meant to be a good follower or Jesus, it did not matter if the food was kosher, or un-kosher, whether it was pig, crab, horse, or cow. It did not matter whether it was butchered properly or not. Eating with a Gentile was not acceptable. It was simply not a thing Christians to do. You did not eat with unbelievers and by extension you did not eat with any Gentiles (because all Gentiles were naturally unbelievers).
Peter came to Cornelius, accepted his hospitality, accepted his food, accepted him as a person and accepted him as a fellow believer. This was breaking all the rules. No wonder the all the other rule following Jewish Christians (as if there was anything other than a Jewish-Christian) back home were upset and confused by his actions. This was not the hardnosed rule following Peter they knew. Peter was a Jew, who lived by the rules and expected all those around him to do the same. He was not the kind of person to just disregard any of them. Peter would NOT do this sort of thing! Why would Peter accept Cornelius as a believer? Why would he have baptized Cornelius? Why would he have gone to Cornelius, eaten with him?  What would have possessed him to do this? 
When questioned, Peter gives his answer. Nothing would have, could have convince Peter do this thing he had done . . . nothing . . . short of a powerful vision given to him by God. And that is exactly why God did just that. God gave Peter a vision in which Peter is shown all kind of animals, clean as well as unclean and God told him to kill and eat. God then told him to go to Cornelius. And in truth it was God who ultimately accepted Cornelius as a believer and it was just Peter who listened, witnessed and obeyed. God made the rules and God said to break them. God opened Peter’s eyes. Jesus was not just for the Jews, Jesus was for everybody. Jesus was not just for Peter and his favorite people, Jesus was, is for everybody.
This was pretty ground breaking stuff in the first century. Now the Church spends quite a bit of time hammering this all out, figuring out what it means for a Gentile to be a Christian. What it looks like, how they live what it means for them. It took a lot to separate Jewish culture from belief in Jesus Christ. You see early Christianity was embedded in Jewish culture (in much the same way here in the US, being an American is very much embedded in how we understand what it means to be a Christian). So much of what they all believed and what it looked like to be a “good Jew” was pretty much what it looked like to be a “good Christian,” except of course you believed in Jesus Christ. So basically you were a Jewish Christian. It was all wrapped up together, culture, Christianity, loving God, loving Jesus, eating like a Jew, acting like a Jew, living a like a Jew and believing in Jesus were all tied in together. After all Jesus kept kosher, Jesus lived, acted, and dressed like a Jew, for the most part, except when he wasn’t. Except when he was picking wheat and healing on the Sabbath, when he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, going to gentiles’ houses to heal their daughters, and their servants, telling stories about heroic Samaritans and allowing Samaritan women to tell preach to their villages about how he is the Messiah. But other than that he was very Jewish, doing, saying and acting like the Jew he was.
It was not a strange thing for his followers to then assume that they too needed, for the most part to be good Jews, to live and to act like good Jews, even when it came to with whom they spent their time and to whom they shared the Gospel. It was easy for them to overlook or forget about the one or two Romans, Jesus helped, that one Gentile woman he healed or that one Samaritan woman and her who village who believe him to be the Messiah before Peter himself had come to that conclusion. So it is no wonder that as the church is blooming and growing in these early days that they need a little reminder that Jesus is bigger than the Jews; that is Christ’s call is to all the peoples of the world and that God’s plan had always been that through Abraham all nations would be blessed. And since all those first Christians were Jews, who lived like Jews and saw their belief in Jesus through a filter provided to them by their Jewish upbringing and the very Jewishness of Jesus himself. That all Christians my not look like them, may not act like them, may not eat like them.
It begins with the conversion of Cornelius and ends when the Jewish counsel decides that the Gentile converts do not need to keep the Jewish purity laws, but what they are realizing that they cannot expect every convert to look like them, to eat like them, to act like them and to turn into copies of who they are in order to be Christian. In many ways they had to separate what it meant to be Jewish, their culture, from being Christian, their faith, so they could openly accept people who were not a part of their culture into the Faith.
But to get there they had to begin by listening to God, going out and seeing how God moved and worked among people who were different. Peter went because God told him to go. He stepped out of his comfort zone, outside of the box he and the early Christians had created to understand their new faith, their new belief in Jesus and shared the truth of Jesus Christ with people who were outside of that box, who made him uncomfortable, whose conversion made him a little uneasy and when he went where God called him to go, when he did what God called him to do, when he accepted the people God called him to accept, he was amazed how God moved and worked among them. When he saw the Spirit move and work in them, he could not deny that they believed and the God’s gift was for them as well. This blew his mind, this stretched his belief system. This changed the rules, because it broke the rules. God was working and moving in ways that did not entirely makes sense to him, but he was a wise man and was not willing to try to stay the hand of God, to tell God that is not the way things were done. He was skeptical, he was careful, he was leery, but when he saw God moving and working in ways that dud not entirely make sense to him, he joined God and did what God called him to do so that Cornelius and his whole household could come to believe, which was the first step to the gospel being opened up to the Gentiles, which come on let’s be honest allows you and I to be here today.
Sometimes Christianity happens outside of the box. God does not always move in ways that makes sense to us. The things God calls us to do to reach out to our world and share the gospel with those around us is not always easy. Sometimes God breaks the rules. Sometimes God does things that stretch us and calls for us to do things that do not makes sense to us, sometimes god calls for us to eat things we don’t want to eat, to go to people to whom don’t want to go, to go places and do things that challenge what we think is right. But when God calls us to do these things, to go to these people to go to these places we will see God move in ways that will show us that this is not just some half-baked idea but that this is God at work in these places, doing these things in these people’s lives.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Multi-Faceted Early Church

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

The story of the Church in Acts has always captivated me. These stories of the early Christians’ making their ways in the world without the Christ who had lead and guided the apostles have always connected with me. It is the first book I remember studying in children’s Bible quizzing. I was always fascinated with all the journeys Paul took around the Mediterranean world and was amazed at how much he endured for the sake of the Gospel. Even though I grew up in a congregation that paid little to no attention to the Holy days of the Christian Church, outside of Easter and Christmas, I grew up with my mother. There are so many things I can thank my mother for, so much of my faith foundation for which I can thank her and I think my love and appreciation for the book of Acts, its stories, its characters and its importance in the place of the Church come from her. And it all boils down to the fact that my mother loves to bake. She especially loved to bake cakes. She bakes cakes for everything, even for every day. This is seen in the fact that I have a recipe passed down from her for “snack cakes,” every day cakes that can be put together and baked in less than 30 mins that, because of their ease to make can be baked on any day of the week for any reason, even if that reason was just that she was happy to see you after a long day at school. So, for as long as I can remember she has celebrated Pentecost by taking one of her snack cakes into her three year old Sunday school class, to celebrate the “birthday” of the Church. Because of my mother, I simply cannot remember not knowing that Pentecost marked the birth of the Church. And it there in a simple snack cake made for preschoolers began my deep affection for the book of Acts.
I would think that since I enjoy this book so much, have read it and studied in parts and as a whole more than once, that it would no longer hold any surprises for me. But time and time again, I find that I can come to passages I thought I knew well and find things I never thought I knew.
So, before I tell you everything that surprises me in this passage, look it over again. Begin with the first three verses. What in those verses stands out to you? What do you find interesting?
Our passage begins by listing off the teachers and prophets of the Church in Antioch. The list is full of Christians we don’t know; Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul. What I notice is that these people are all from different places and have different backgrounds. Barnabas, was from Jerusalem, he has already made an appearance in the book of Acts several times and has apparently made his way to Antioch and is now a vital part of that church. Then there is Simeon, who is called Niger, which literally means “black.” This could lead us to believe that at the very least was darker in complexion than most of the people around him. The third person on this list is Lucius, who is from Cyrene, which was in Libya. Then we have Manaen who is a member of Herod’s court. And lastly we have Saul who was a Pharisee from Tarsus, who had once persecuted the Church but is now a vital member of the Church in Antioch.
 What an interesting and diverse group these Christians in Antioch must have been! You have established members of the greater Church as represented by Barnabas. Within this Church both Jews and Gentiles worship together as represented by people with Jewish background or names, such as Barnabas and Simeon, and these are listed alongside of people with names of Gentile origins such as Lucius and Manaen.
It is also interesting to note that this Church does not simply contain Jews and Gentiles from the city of Antioch, but this Church had people varying ethnicities and from various countries as represented by Simeon who is most not from Antioch and from a country farther away on the African continent, as well as Lucius who is noted to be from Cyrene in Libya. But the diversity seen in this Church goes even beyond even this, the passage also makes not of people of varying classes of society, as represented by Manaen, who is a member of the court of Herod, Barnabas, who was a Levite, and also Saul, who is known to have been a Pharisee, as well as a prominent Roman citizen. You can see just from this short list of its leaders the Church in Antioch, was doing its best to minster to and reach out to all the many and varying people who could be found in Antioch. Even before Saul and Barnabas are sent out on their first missionary journey to the far reaches of the Roman Empire to scatter the Empire with Christians far and wide in almost every corner the known world, the Church is already rife with complex diversity. The Church has always been and should always remain a place where people from every nation, from every background, can find a place where they loved, can come to know the Lord God and find rest in the presence of  Christ as found in the body of believers.
Among the leaders of this church is Paul, we all know Paul?  Well, except this is when he was still called Saul. At this point in Acts he has been converted but he has not changed his name. In fact, we don’t know exactly when he changes his name or even why. For many years I believed it was God who changed Saul’s name at the time of his conversion. But Saul goes into the conversion being called Saul, comes out of that whole experience still being called Saul and then continues to be called Saul even up until after he sets out on his missionary journeys. It is Saul and Barnabas who are called to go together. But later it is Paul and Barnabas doing the work of the Lord.
Part way through chapter 13 (in the section we skipped), his name suddenly changes. Saul and Barnabas are sent by the Church and the Holy Spirit in verse 3. They set sail for Cyprus and then suddenly, on the isle of Paphos it is Paul, who was once called Saul who is filled the Holy Spirit and speaks to the Elymas, the magician. Somewhere along the way he changed his name, or more probably, he as he traveled out into the Roman Empire, away from Jewish communities, he was known by his Greek name Paul, as opposed to his Jewish name Saul. It seems like Saul/Paul who is Jewish and also a Roman Citizen has two names. This would have been similar practices many immigrants in the US have today, who have an Anglicized name that they take on, along with their natural name.
I also had this idea in my head that the great Saul/Paul missionary of the Church went out almost immediately. But that also seems to not be true. This passage gives the impression that following his conversion, Saul settled down in Antioch and became an important part of the Church there. And then sometime later, the Holy Spirit prompted that church to raise him and Barnabas up and send them out to spread the good News of the Gospel across the known world.  And so they went.
Throughout chapter 13 we hear tell of all their many successes. It seemed everywhere they went Jews believed, Gentiles believe; people from all walks of life, from every kind of profession and from all corners of the cities, to which they traveled, trust in Jesus Christ and became believers.  
And then they come to Lystra, which seems to be their first entirely Gentile city. They preach there and heal a man who has faith and then everything goes pear shaped. The whole mission turns sideways when the people to whom they are speaking come to believe them to be gods instead of trying to lead them to believe in the One true God through Jesus Christ. They try to correct this misconception but fail, not matter what they do, the people want to make them gods and offer sacrifices to them.
Why would the Bible include such a discouraging story?
How discouraging. What can we learn from this story?
What does this passage have to say to us today?
Sometimes even the best of us fail. We can do all the right things. We can say all the right things. We can do things that worked for other people; that worked in different places; that have worked for us in the past. But sometimes people don’t get it. They don’t understand us. They misinterpret our message and come to think the church and its people are something they are not. There are so many ways the Church, its mission and the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and ultimately rejected. I do not think we can live where we live today, be familiar with the world around us and not know this. We can do our best, we can say all the right things, we can present Jesus in the most faithful way we know how, but sometimes, more often than we would like what we do, what we say, it doesn’t work. We don’t see people coming to Christ; people are not getting to our God in the way we would like for them to know God.
This passage is here to let us know that sometimes this happens. But it also is here to tell us that we don’t give up when this happens. Paul and Barnabas did not give up their work that day. They did not pack it all up and go back to Antioch and say, we got to Lystra but they thought we were gods, so we got on the next ship home and came back. We can’t ever have that happening again! 
Now they leave Lystra and go on to a couple of other places before coming back and trying again, but they came back, they tried again and they did better next time.
The thing is if these great evangelists of the early Church who are known for bringing people all over the known world to Christ, can try and fail, that tells me that it just might happen to us once or twice. We go into our community; we share the love of Jesus in real and tangible ways. We have seen very little growth because of the work we have done. As far as we know, nobody we have met in the park, who has received a thanksgiving box, an Easter basket, a post-fire comfort care kit, or one of our teacher appreciation baked goods have come to know Jesus or have even started going to Church because of the ways we have reached into our community attempting to share the love of Jesus. I say as far as we know, because we don’t know what seeds we have planted and we don’t know what other Churches may have already or someday will benefit from the prevenient grace God has put into these people’s lives through us. Does this lack of visible positive response mean we give up? Should we stop? Do we decided that no one among the people we minister will ever come to Christ because of the ways we have been faithful to the call of the Gospel we have felt is calling us into the parks, into the schools, in to the family shelter, into the lives all those who receive the many and varied ways we reach into our neighborhood and our city with the love of Jesus. Do we pack it all up, take our preverbal ball and go home? The answer is no. Paul and Barnabas kept preaching, kept teaching, and kept healing, kept sharing the love of Jesus with the world around them and we, even when we “fail” should continue to do so as well.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Two People of Prayer

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

Cornelius was a Centurion, a Roman citizen from Caesarea, a bustling seaport on the Mediterranean coast. He would have been known as a God fearer, a Gentile who worshipped God, but had not undergone the necessary procedure to properly become a Jew. We are told he, his family and his whole household worshipped the Lord and he gave generously to those in need. He was a faithful devout believer in God in all ways. And we are told he prayed constantly. He was truly a man of God.
As our story begins today, he is praying in the afternoon. As he is praying the Lord speaks to him. God has heard his prayers. God sees his faithfulness. God knows his devotion. He is told his prayers and generosity has ascended to the Lord. The image given is as if his prayers and his generosity are received in the same manner as sacrifices to the Lord. They have risen to the Lord, as the smoke from a burnt sacrifice and are pleasing to the Lord, in the same way temple offering are. This is another way of saying, “You have done well, my good and faithful servant.” Not only does the narrative tell us that Cornelius is a faithful believer, but God is telling him that he is a good and faithful believer.
God then tells him to send men to Joppa, another coastal town a little more than a day’s journey South of Caesarea. There they will find Peter who is visiting a tanner named Simon who lives along the seaside. Immediately, Cornelius does what the Lord has told him to do. He calls another devout believer among his men and sends him to Joppa to find Peter. 
The next day, at about noon, Peter is praying on the roof. As he is praying he becomes hungry, but before anyone brings him the food they are preparing for lunch, God sends him a vision of a cloth coming down from the heavens and upon it are all kinds of creatures of the earth; animals, reptiles and even some birds. And God instructs him to kill and eat. Now, Peter is a faithful Jewish man. He knows the difference between the creatures of the earth and sky God has given for them to eat and the creatures which God has forbidden and many of the animals he sees before him are not for eating, so he refuse to kill them and eat them, telling God, never has he allowed himself to eat that which is profane or unclean. And God simply says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Three times this happens. After the third time, the cloth is taken away. And while Peter is still puzzling about this, the men sent by Cornelius arrive asking for Peter.
They tell Peter about Cornelius and the message from God, so the next day, Peter and several other believers from Joppa go up to Caesarea with these men and when he arrives Peter begins to tell them about Jesus and the good news of the Gospel and how we all might come to know God and be forgiven through him.
While Peter is speaking the Holy Spirit comes and fills all those to whom he was speaking. And all the Jewish believers, who are with Peter, are amazed because God has given the Holy Spirit to not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. It was then that Peter understood what God had been telling him, that none whom the Lord has made clean should ever be treated as profane. Jesus had come to bring salvation to the gentiles, as well as the Jews. All who believe are saved, all who come to the Lord are made holy, no matter who they are, or where they are from. So Peter baptizes them all.
Peter baptizes the first Gentile believers that day and we are here today. The church is full of Gentile believers, loved and accepted by God, the Church, and the body of Christ, loved by God, accepted by Jesus. Together, Jews and Gentiles, we are believers, made holy as Jesus Christ himself was holy. Before the faithful actions of Cornelius and the faithful response of Peter, the Church was made up sole of Jewish believers, but from this time forward Jews and Gentiles both worship Jesus, both are accepted as children of God, both make up the body of Christ and this diversity is expounded upon and extended up to this very day. The diversity we know in the Church today was begun here in Caesarea. Because of the events we see in this passage the Church changed forever. Because these two people prayed the Church is never the same.
Cornelius prayed, he heard from God and sent people to Peter in Joppa. Peter prayed, he knew he needed to go with these men from Caesarea; he was able to share the good news of Jesus Christ with these God fearers. Because Cornelius prayed he and his household were faithful believers, ready to listen and hear the direction from God, to receive the Spirit when it came. Because Peter prayed, he was able to see God at work in these lives of these people, he was able to recognize the Holy Spirit when it came, he was able to see that God was already at work, and in the life of another man who prayed, his family, and his household. Because he prayed, Peter could see what God was already doing among these believers and what able to see God was teaching him.  Because they were praying the lives of these people, Peter, Cornelius, his family and his household was changed forever. Because they prayed the whole Church was transformed.
This is what happens when devout men and women of God pray; people are changed, the Church is transformed and the world is able to see God at work among us. When the people of God pray amazing things happen. All that we see happening in this passage, happens because both of these people of God were praying.
The events in this passage do not happen because people prayed once, or twice. God does not speak to these two because they prayed beautiful or eloquent prayers. Their lives are not turned upside down simply because they called upon God occasionally or periodically. These two prayed, often, multiple times a day. The passage mentions Cornelius praying at 3 and Peter at noon, before lunch is even thought about, so that we know that this is a middle of the prayer not a perfunctory prayed to prepare us for the coming day, said before getting out of bed to recognizing that God’s grace goes before us into the day. Neither is it a rote prayer, prayed just prior to a meal thanking God for all that went into the preparation and the bringing of small the common but power gift of substance, in all its forms. This is not simply a bed time prayer said out of thankfulness at the end of the day giving glory to a God who has brought us through to the end of yet another day. This is a midday prayer, a prayer said by one who prays first thing in the morning, each time sustenance is found, at the closing of each day, as well as set times throughout the day. They prayed and their lives were changed because they made it a habit to pray; because they prayed faithfully, habitually the mission and trajectory of the entire Church was changed, forever. It is not just prayer that changes things, but it is the habit of prayer that moves mountains and transforms the Church.
When we pray, God does amazing things. But we need to pray. Our lives can be changed; the Church can be transformed, the brokenness of the World can be made whole, but first the people of God must be a praying people. Prayer changes things, it changes us, it prepares us, it allows us to see God, to hear the world of the Lord, to recognize God at work and to go and do the things Christ would have us go and do. But first we must pray.
And this is not just about praying when we gather together. It is easy to pray on Sundays. We set aside time for that. We pray at the beginning of service, we pray at set times throughout the service and we pray before we go. And as a church we pray about all sorts of things. We pray as we enter into God’s presence. We pray when we offer ourselves and our gifts up to God. We bring our hurts and our concerns to God. We pray that we have heard, understood and are able to take the Word of God with us into the mundane parts of our lives. We pray that God will use us as we go into the world, as God body of Christ gathered, as well as when we are scattered.
How we pray here is the model of prayer for our lives. We pray at start of each day, as well as at its close. As well as set time throughout. We pray because we are thankful, we pray that we may be used, we pray for others and for ourselves. We pray for our hurts and our concerns. We pray that God will go with us into all the mundane parts of our lives and will use us. We pray for that we might hear God’s word and take into all parts of our daily lives.
Prayer is not just about us, and hurt and our concerns. It is not just praying when we are hurting or need something from God. It is about praying daily, praying often, and praying habitually. It is about bathing all parts of our day, all out activities in prayer. It is about making prayer a constant and consistent part of our day.
It is also about praying without expectations; to pray ready and willing to hear from God; to pray in such a way that you are open and ready to listen to what God has to say. To do what God is directing you to do; to go where God calls you to go, to give what God calls you to give and to do what God instructs you to do (or not do – as the case may be). Neither Cornelius nor Peter got what they were expecting when they set to praying. Both of their lives were changed in unexpected ways because they prayed, and the listened to what God was telling them.
God can changes the world through us, when we pray, but we have to be ready to listen, ready to go, ready to do, ready to be stretched, ready for God to change what we believe, what we think to be true, ready to allow God to transform us so that through us the world in turn can be transformed. But first we must pray, we must be praying people; people who pray fervently, people who pray faithfully, throughout our days. Prayer has to become a constant in our lives. God will changed us, God will move the Church, and transform the world, in us, through us, but first we must be praying people.