Friday, April 24, 2015

Paul Rides a Horse

23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. [1] 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” 25 And he wrote a letter to this effect:
 26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”
 31 So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32 And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. 33 When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. 34 On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod's praetorium.” (Acts 23:23-35 (ESV)

That is a lot of protection that Claudius provides for Paul on his journey to Felix. The Roman government was serious about protecting her citizens, especially why they were on trial. Vigilante justice was not permitted. This also is the first time you hear of Paul riding a horse. It’s a bit of trivia, but a person assumes most of his trips were taken on foot. He may never have ridden a horse before in his life. But if he is going to keep up with cavalry he’d need to be on a horse of his own, putting him on a donkey in such a situation wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. In any case, even a government such as Rome’s understood the necessity of protecting prisoners. And this saved Paul. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bargain with God?

12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”
 16 Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.” (Acts 23:12-22 (ESV)
The son of Paul’s sister, Paul’s nephew, we don’t know much about him. It’s an odd thing, family members don’t get much mention. We know a lot about Paul, but we don’t even know how many siblings he might have had. A person kind of wonders what kind of an uncle he was. Luke wasn’t a novelist, and he wasn’t getting paid by the word. There are the things that are essential and that is what is recorded. We know Peter was married because  his mother-in-law is healed by Jesus. Peter’s wife doesn’t even get mentioned. Kind of tells you how important women like Priscilla and Lydia were to the gospel when they get such mention over and over again in Acts and elsewhere among Paul’s letters.
The Jews plot to kill Paul, again. And Paul escapes again. The Romans don’t let him get captured by these men who have made such a silly and awful vow. I wonder how long they went along with this vow before they gave in and ate, or if they inadvertently killed themselves. Vows aren’t to be taken so lightly. This is why  Paul instructs Christians not to swear. Yes, the prohibitions against swearing are completely ignored today because everyone thinks it is about cusswords, the concept of which hardly existed at the time scripture was written. So we swear to God while making a joke. And it ought to make us cringe. Paul tells us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. The reality is that we should be offended when someone presses us for a promise or an oath. There are times for such things, weddings, military service, and court. But if you say you are going to do something, do it.

In the Old Testament there are countless stories, which if they were to be treated as Aesop’s fables would be given the moral, don’t make stupid oaths. People are constantly dying as a result  of stupid oaths. They lose battles, go blind. God is constantly  telling people to stop it with the promises already. The reality is God doesn’t work quid pro quo, and I tend to think this is why he hates vows as much as he does. Most of them are along the lines of Lord, if you do this then I will do this…. Yeah, who are you to bargain with God in such a manner?  God created us, and we are his servants whether or not we wish to be. These things that we promise to do for God if he does x for us, these are things we are supposed to be doing regardless of whether or not he does x for us. And the fact of the matter is, most often he does x for us. Why? Because he loves us. He gives us our daily bread. He even gives all evil people their daily bread. He doesn’t do it because you promised to do such and such if he would. He does it because he’s a loving Father the type of which you have never known in life. He just does it. He does it even despite your silly vow. Even despite the fact that you broke your promise before you made it. God is not to be bargained with as if he was some loan shark, banker, or business associate. The reality is you have nothing with which to bargain with him anyway. But if you do make a vow, you ought to follow through on it. So if you promise not to eat or drink anything until such time as you manage to kill your neighbor, perhaps get ready to jump off a bridge. Or, fall upon the mercy of God who sent his son to die for the forgiveness of your sins, even the sin of thinking God was someone to be bargained with. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

He Stands By Us

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Paul’s prayers are answered. He will go to Rome. The Lord has confirmed it. The Lord has even come to stand by Paul in the midst of prison. Somehow I get the inclination that Paul was singing hymns in the morning.
It’s funny, Ascension Day is coming when we snuff out the Christ candle, at least according to some traditions of the church. This will be the end of the 40 days of which Luke tells us where in Jesus  went in and out among the disciples after the resurrection. Not all of those instances are recorded for us in the gospels.  But with the ascension there is a note of good bye. No longer will the disciple’s look for Christ in the way they had before. Now the Helper will come, the promised Holy Spirit to clothe them with power from on high. Now the Disciples will turn to the word and the sacraments to find Christ. But this does not mean that Christ will never appear to them again during their earthly ministries, or that he can’t.
With Paul the resurrection occurrences seem to be more frequent and longer lasting than they were for the other disciples. In the Epistles of Paul are numerous references to instructions that he received from the Lord. One gathers that Jesus was guiding his the studies of Paul quite intimately on his three year post conversion sabbatical in the Arabian Desert. But even as Paul is engaged in his ministry is direct contact with Jesus appearing in his resurrected body on earth is not much frequent. But it is here.
“Take courage” he says. Sometimes harder to do than hear. Take courage. We often make this a bit of law. “Oh, you just don’t have enough faith.” Probably right, thanks for pointing that out. We’ve all been in these situations. Jesus promises that this world is going to give us trial and tribulation, and boy does it make good on his promise. And the thing is, we know he has overcome the world. We know that our salvation is intact. We know God has us in his hands. But we still have to live through the trials and tribulations. Jesus knew he was going to be raised after three days, he prophesied it to his disciples, and he still agonized to the point of sweating blood when it came time for him to bear the wrath of God for the sake of sinful man. And ultimately, we don’t know. We don’t know what exactly is God’s plan for our lives. We don’t know when the night of mourning is going to turn into the morning of dance. We don’t know if God will see fit to bless our plans and goals and see them through in some manner or another. And we put our earthly hopes and dreams into a basket. God knows them. They ascend into his presence upon the incense of prayer. But his answer is not always yes, and sometimes his yes is so long denied fulfillment that when that wish is fulfilled we have forgotten that we wanted it. So yes, we agonize. And at times like this God sends encouragement, the mutual consolation of the saints. That is a blessed gift when you can hear the voice of Jesus in the words of a friend, a pastor, perhaps even a stranger that makes you wonder about entertaining angels unawares. It’s not about having enough faith. That sort of talk most often adds to the tentatio, the temptation, the agony. But it is word that adds to faith and gives faith. It’s word that says you aren’t experiencing this in vain. God is directing here, he is in charge, he is going to see you through. And there amidst the trials and tribulations there is joy and encouragement. Whether he appears to us or not, we can take heart and know that he does stand by us.

Monday, April 20, 2015

He Ate Fish

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, [2] 43 and he took it and ate before them.
 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:36-49 (ESV)

“They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.”  Jesus appears among his disciples and eats fish. He does this to confirm that he is not a ghost, not a disembodied soul, a spirit or some figment of their imagination. He has risen from the dead. To this day, people try dismiss the resurrection as some sort of mass hysteria along the lines of alien sightings, or ghost stories told around campfires. And yet as they are recorded in scripture they have none of the characteristics of such stories so easily dismissed. The corporeal reality of the resurrection is concrete. Jesus eats fish. His existence is not one of a disembodied soul inhabiting heaven, but rather he like Abraham and Isaac, like Moses and Elijah who he meets on the mount of transfiguration lives, eats, drinks and celebrates life. In eating fish he gives us a vision of our future, the life of heaven that awaits for us, even as he gives us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Lord’s Supper.
Heaven as it is described in popular culture, which often disregards the resurrection of the flesh, but adheres to an immortality of the soul, becomes somewhat a scary place. Most people are joking when they say they don’t want to go to heaven because they won’t have any friends there. It’s a bravado that neither cares to take seriously what scripture has to say about life after death, the existence of heaven and hell and what is entailed therein. No beer in heaven they say. Well they have it wrong. There is no beer in hell, but heaven as it is described in scripture is a table serving the best of meats and the finest of wines. And I will just say here in passing, I do not agree with this modern dichotomy I find espoused today by well-meaning pastors and theologians wanting to emphasize the resurrection of the flesh and so insist heaven is not the goal of the Christian life, but rather the resurrection of the flesh and the new creation. I suppose if one wants we can compartmentalize heaven and the new creation and speak of the throne room of God and the new earth as different spheres, but I don’t see the point. Heaven and the resurrection of the flesh are one reality, even as Christ inhabits the throne room of God in the flesh, the same flesh and bone he received at conception in Mary’s womb, the same flesh that was crucified on the cross, that he showed the disciple’s this day in the upper room, the same body he now gives to us for the forgiveness of sins in with and under the bread and wine, the same body with which he eats fish.
It seems a simple thing. Perhaps not even a very appetizing thing, eating fish. It’s not normally the first thing I order at a restaurant, fish. Though some of the best meals in my life have been meals of fish. To this day I remember visiting Sweden with my grandfather Bror, then in his late 80s, me in my early twenties. My uncle Per Olaf wanting to treat us to a dinner worthy of the great city of Gothenburg took us to a fancy restaurant in the harbor amidst the docks where you could see all the huge ships coming in and out of the North Sea. I looked at the menu and couldn’t reconcile the prices to my conscience, as I quickly converted Kronor to dollars in my head. They seemed absurd. Never in my life would I have ever thought I’d spend my own money much less another person’s on a meal. He was treating me, but my pious upbringing was rearing an ugly head and plaguing me with the thought that to order off this menu was to steal from a very hospitable host. So I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu. For a couple hundred dollars I ordered cod, and ate wearing blue jeans, a meal worthy of a tuxedo. Funny, the worst meals I’ve had were eaten while wearing a tux, and mess dress blues. But this cod came out on a plate, and the fillets were rolled somewhat like a cinnamon roll around each other, and had been cooked in a cream sauce with just a hint of dill and every bite melted in the mouth with the consistency of the best flan you have ever had. I could not believe what I was eating, and began to wonder what those more expensive dishes must be like, so I finished my grandfather’s tuna steak, and was not at all disappointed. Somehow I doubt the fish, salted to preserve in on the three day inland trek from the coast to the markets in Jerusalem and broiled a day and a half later, tasted anything of the like for Jesus as the fish in the Gothenburg restaurant. But it was fish, it was solid concrete food for the body, savory on the tongue, and food for the soul.
See some things in life are meant to be. These simple things we take pleasure in here and now. Those things that sometimes make us a little attached to this world, perhaps even more so than we should be, because we think that they cease with death, these things are shadows of what they should be, even as we are shadows of who we will be. Meals with friends, a Friday pint with coworkers, family dinners that go just write without the drama of thanksgiving.  These things that fill our life with meaning and purpose even in the face of death here on earth. No, these things don’t cease, but rather reach a perfection in the resurrection. Eating, drinking, dancing and working, and living, no not existing, living in the full glory of the grace of God, the joy of life to its fullest, because the man who ate fish in the upper room is a man, a real man of flesh and blood, our man who gives us life and says take and eat, take drink this cup is my blood of the New Testament given for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Resurrection

 6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. (Acts 23:5-10 (ESV)
Paul knows how to start a fight. You get the impression that there was a little bit of a scrapper in him. He turns the discussion to the resurrection knowing that this will get the focus off of him and into the ongoing quarrel between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. But it is also ingenious because that is why he was on trial. The resurrection of Jesus was the proof of the resurrection the Pharisees needed in their quarrel with the Sadducees who refused to believe in the resurrection. Yet, the Pharisees refused to believe in the resurrection.
I suppose this is one of those things that you believe in theory, but are skeptical of in reality. Kind of like me when it comes to demon possession and the black arts. In theory I believe the stuff is real, or at least can be real. But in reality I’m fairly skeptical whenever I encounter stories of it. The Pharisees believed in theory that the resurrection would occur, but when a concrete example of it occurred, the first fruits of it, they started persecuting those who believed it, as much as they fought with those who refused to believe in the resurrection at all. One of those times when a person finds they have more in common with the people they have been quarreling with than they thought. Kind of like when an LCMS member and an ELCA member get challenged on baptism by a baptist.

And then the fight occurs between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. People who aren’t religious think it’s odd that religious people will fight and quarrel over religion. I don’t. I see people fight in rock clubs, prospecting clubs, sewing clubs, and comic clubs. Religion is at the heart of culture, it’s at the heart of who a person is. Emotions will and do run deep when it comes to a person’s faith. This isn’t an excuse for the infighting that can turn a district convention into a cage match, but it does make things a bit more understandable. I also think if more people understood this about themselves and others, there would be less fighting about it. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shall Not Speak Evil of a Ruler of Your People

23:1 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God's high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
(Acts 23:1-5 (ESV)
“You shall not speak evil of ruler over your people.”
This is somewhat of a comical scene. Paul obviously knew who the high priest was.  But his and that he did not know it was the high priest was a bit of an insult to the man who acted beneath his dignity. Before Paul had even anything to say, Ananias ordered Paul to be struck, it was unbecoming of a high priest, of a man of his stature. The man himself has spoken badly of his office, of himself.
It’s a hard one not to speak evil of rulers. They are often unbecoming of their office. They are human, like you. Often they anger a person, or gaff with stupidity. And in the United States, making fun of our rulers is a national pastime. Once they hold public office we think the 8th commandment no longer applies to them. Within our synod, the problem is worse regarding those we elect to be DPs and so on.
Now, not speaking evil isn’t that we have to agree with everything a person does. But rather than revile them we should pray for them. And if we are praying for them, we probably ought not be reviling them, it would make our prayers just a little disingenuous.

Of course, in a very real sense, Ananias was not the high priest. We have one of those, and it is Jesus Christ who intercedes for us before the Father. He has made the final sacrifice, he is our ruler. And he does rule, even through men like Ananias. But Christ fulfils the role perfectly, and rather than condemning men, he receives blows. Rather than revile, he cries out, Forgive them Father for they  know not what they do. And this he says of us too. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Peace Be To You"

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, [3] was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:19-31 (ESV)
“Peace be with you.”
With these words Jesus arrests the fears of the disciples.  It was fear that had them locked up in that room where they had last celebrated the Passover with Jesus, where Jesus had instituted the Lord’s Supper. The tomb was empty, and the sightings of Jesus were not yet trusted. Peter, and a couple trembling women mumbling incoherently. Did they hallucinate? Was it a ghost? But what about this body? It was gone. Strange the clothes were so neatly folded. Why would the Jews even bother stripping him if they meant to desecrate his body? What would the Romans want with it? And where is it? At any moment they could come for them.  Fear and trembling, permeates the room, locked for fear of the Jews.
Fear does that. It locks doors. We lock our cars for fear of having them stolen. Lock our doors at night for fear of a break in. Fear locks doors shut. Fear of cancer and keep even the doctors door locked shut. The person suspecting he has cancer, afraid the doctor might confirm it, and they would rather live as if that lump just didn’t exist. Fear of failure keeps us from trying, afraid to get our hopes up. Fear of God keeps the doors to the church locked, and shut tight, we know what the judgment should be. People do instinctively. And if anyone is uncertain as to what that judgment should be, well there are plenty of people presuming to speak for God willing to confirm your worst fears with their condemnations. If you don’t have the fear of God, well they’ll give it to you. They are certainly willing to share that, though too often afraid themselves to share forgiveness.
Do they trust it themselves, or do they fear it? “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Psalm 103:4 But it isn’t God that is feared with most people, but his forgiveness, what it might do. I’m always as confused by this as the man who doesn’t want to go to the doctor because he might have cancer. It doesn’t make sense. But there is a lot of fear mongering that goes on today, perhaps it has always been so. And it locks us up in rooms afraid to share. I think most often were afraid people are going to abuse forgiveness. If I forgive them, well they will just take advantage of me. Yes, as they took advantage of Christ, as you take advantage of him every time you receive his body sacrificed for you, every time you receive his blood shed for you. If we forgive them they will sin all the more! Yes, even Paul heard that when he was writing Romans. If we preach forgiveness they won’t ever clean up their act! Yes, this is true, we have firsthand experience of that. But it is not as if rules and laws, brow beatings and guilt trips have ever gotten us to clean up our acts either. Oh, we may have conformed for a time, but most often like a sullen teenager that resents every minute of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn for his parents who make sure he has a bed, and a meal to eat.
Fear, it often keeps us huddled, keeps our faith not only personal but private. Perhaps only ever shared on Sunday mornings in the safety of the sanctuary, but rarely at lunch with a friend. We keep it locked up for fear. Fear of being laughed at. Fear of being criticized and judged. Fear of the tribulation this world gives those who follow him who has overcome this world. The same man who even now stands in your midst and says, “Peace be to you.” No, Jesus won’t be locked out of your life by your fears. Here he now comes with his peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace the comes because God is not afraid to forgive, even when he knows you are going to abuse his forgiveness. Peace be to you! Jesus declares it! He sacrificed himself on the cross, shed his blood and poured it out upon the world that it would intercede for us before God, who is now at peace with you. This is the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace that God has declared while we were yet enemies of God. The peace that he declares with his forgiveness when he stands in our midst saying take eat this is my body given for you, take drink this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Put away your fears and believe, this world will give your tribulation but take heart I have overcome this world. See, I have been raised from the dead, I have conquered death in your name. You too have eternal life, you walk in the newness of life. Yes, I rolled away the stone, now the door can no longer be locked, I am the door open to you, open to life.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.