Philip Had His Sneakers On

Philip Catechizes the Ethiopian, Exeter College Chapel, Oxford

I love the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. In a nutshell it is a story of Philip telling this man the good news of Jesus Christ, but it is much more. There are details like how Philip runs in verse 30 when the Spirit tells him to go to the chariot. He doesn’t just walk, but he runs in obedience to the Spirit. This story is a great testament to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in that Philip teaches Isaiah as speaking about Jesus. There is great urgency from the Ethiopian at hearing and believing the good news as he wants to immediately be baptized. Then at the end Philip is carried away by the Spirit never to be seen by the other man again, and then finds himself in another town.

Like I said, a great story. And it also a great challenge to us to heed the words of 1 Peter:

…Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.

Would we have been prepared to instruct someone reading Isaiah with such questions? Are we equipped when someone asks us to tell them about our faith? Can we do it and will we do it with such enthusiasm that we run to those opportunities?

Love Your Enemies – A story of Acts 9

La conversion de Saint Paul, Giordano (vers 1690)

About one year ago I preached on a text we read this week from Acts 9. It is the famous conversion of Saul, but instead of placing focus there, I gave more attention to an overlooked character of the story, Ananias. He’s the one given the task by God to welcome in a great enemy of the early church, the persecutor, Saul.

I set the stage like this:

Could you imagine? God comes to him in a vision, speaking his name, and Ananias responds, “Here I am Lord!” Then as the conversation continues he’s a little caught off guard. “You want me to do what? To Saul? I’ve heard of all the evil he is doing. You do realize that he has the authority to bind all (and by all, that means me!) who call on your name?” This has to be terrifying for him. We have the benefit of knowing the full story of Saul, how he is transformed by God and becomes a great servant of Jesus Christ. We know him much more as Paul the Apostle. Yet all Ananias knew was Saul, Saul the Persecutor of Christians, Saul the Enemy of the Church. Who really had persecuted the young Christian church more than he? Who had directly overseen more arrests and imprisonments? And that Saul is the one Ananias must lay hands on and heal.

Ananias has a tough task ahead. It boils down to the call we all have to love our enemies, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5. We aren’t to return love to only those who love us. No, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Saul fits that description quite nicely.

I finished the message with what we can learn from Ananias’ example of following Christ’s command, and in truth, Christ’s model of loving enemies.

…I don’t claim to excel at loving my neighbors, let alone loving my enemies. This is a challenge for me. But I don’t think many of us have enemies we encounter greater than what Ananias had in Saul. I don’t think our excuses for not obeying Christ’s command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute would match up with any of the excuses I’m sure Ananias could have come up with. But he didn’t make excuses. Christ is Lord, he trusted in him–he trusted that no matter how things might have appeared, God is in control, and he obeyed.

Week 11

We are in the home stretch of this Spring quarter. I hope you can dig deep and finish out strong as we now enter this week into the book of Deuteronomy. We’ve got some longer weeks ahead, but then our last week of quarter one will give us some time to breath as we have a lighter load.

So jump in and get going on that reading today. It makes such a difference if you do even just one chapter a day. That way you’re building up the habit, making God’s Word part of your routine.

This week I’ll post some helpful resources about the Deuteronomy and thoughts on Acts. If you have something you’d like covered, let me know. Deuteronomy is the last of what is called the Pentateuch, or in other words, the first five (penta, like pentagon) books of the Old Testament. Once we finish that book we’ll have read those first five pivotal books of the Old along with two gospels and what amounts to the start of the church in the New Testament in the book of Acts. All that plus over a quarter of the Psalms. Not bad for a quarter.

This is also a great time to be thinking about our summer and asking others to try Year in the Bible along with you, at least for a quarter.

The Story So Far, Week 10 – Balaam and the Spirit

Rembrandt, Balaam and His Ass, 1626

First off, we’ve now completed double-digit weeks of Year in the Bible! Congratulations.

Back in the Old Testament, Numbers slows its pace down to tell the reader about the diviner, Balaam. He’s known for his abilities to discern spirits, speak oracles, and generally relate to the spiritual world. King Balak wants to use Balaam’s abilities to bring down curses upon the peoples of Israel. They are great in number and are looming at Balak’s doorstep. But God will not allow his people, whom he has blessed, to be cursed by Balaam.

Because of God’s will, Balaam says he will not go, but Balak pushes him again and again. Balaam eventually goes, but only once God allows him, and even then, he has a stern message for the diviner on the road.

Balaam is riding his old donkey, with which he seems to have shared many rides. But on this ride the donkey refuses to continue. An angel of God stands in their way. The donkey won’t succumb to Balaam who tries to drive him on becase the donkey knows better. Balaam gets angry until God opens the donkeys mouth to speak to him and then opens his eyes to see the angel. The great irony of this story is that the person who is known in the land as being able to see spiritual things is here blind, while a mere donkey can see what is right before them. How humbling for the diviner, and how revealing to us how spiritual understanding is given. God has to give it to us.

And that is what we see given to the whole church in Acts. God gives his own Spirit to the people and they are given speech, like the donkey, and they are shown all spiritual truth. God’s Spirit lives in believers now and that has changed everything.

Just think of the implications. Take a moment.

To look at one example, think about the selection of the disciple who replaces Judas. The disciples cast lots. After Pentecost, when the Spirit comes upon the church, do you see lots cast again?

It is amazing to live in a time in which we all have greater access than so-called diviners like Balaam, for God has made his dwelling place among us and in us by his Spirit.

Did Christ Go Up Up and Away?

Ascension of Christ, Garofalo, 1520

In the end of Luke and in the beginning of Acts we read about the ascension of Christ. This short article from the site Near Emmaus raises some questions about what occurred that day and makes you think about where heaven is.

Here’s a quick blurb:

Jesus didn’t keep going into space, past Jupiter, to some floating New Jerusalem a few miles past Neptune. Rather, Jesus disappeared into a parallel reality, yet God accomplished this in a way that would have conveyed symbolic meaning to the disciples.

Not For Us To Know

If you ever get a chance to do a book review for a new book that claims to know the date of Christ’s return (note that old books on this topic have a hard time remaining in publication after having been wrong), do so. I think it’ll be an easy job. They’re wrong.

We see Christ speak about knowing the future in chapter one in Acts, and it comes up elsewhere, too. There may be general signs and indications that the end is nearing, but no one knows when that will be. It is not just that we’re ignorant, it is a willful ignorance willed by the Father. When people ask Jesus before he ascends in Acts 1, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?”, Jesus makes it clear we’re not supposed to know. He says, “It’s not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” This is not to be our concern, but I do find it comforting that Jesus next statement regards the Holy Spirit. We can be an anxious and curious people, and to help us in our frustrations of knowing what to do and what comes next, Christ promises his Spirit.

We know how the story ends. We know the last chapter. But there is a lot left unknown to us, and it is not our place to speculate. We trust the future God has in store for us, doing so by the power of the Spirit, and we certainly welcome the day, whenever it is, of Christ’s return when he will restore his kingdom and make all things new. And I’m pretty sure that it won’t be December 21, 2012.

Week 10 – Numbers and Acts

Balaam, the Angel and the Ass; Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikipedia)

Welcome to Week 10.

We’re back to just reading two books this week as the Psalms are taking a week off. But in its place we have another hearty week of Numbers and seven chapters of Acts.

In Numbers we have some well known stories like when Moses brought forth water from a rock, a bronze snake that heals the Israelite people, and a donkey that talks. We finish this week as the Israelites come to the end of their wandering and are readying themselves to enter the promised land (again).

Acts is a continuation of Luke, written by the same author, continuing the story of what happens once Jesus is raised. It is often described as Acts of the Holy Spirit, and that is what it is. You’ll see the way that God’s Spirit empowers the early church and the disciples to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll read about Pentecost, healings, opposition from the Jewish establishment, and Stephen’s wonderful testimony before the Sanhedrin and subsequent stoning. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr.

Hope you enjoy this week. If you have questions or comments, send them this way and I’ll do my best to respond and share with everyone else. I’d love to have you join me this summer at either reading groups, which you can find more information about at the above link. Some things take breaks as school is out in the summer, but you can always find yourself welcome at a reading group.