Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paul and Barnabus Sent Off

13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, [1] Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3 (ESV)
Thus begins the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabus. It begins with worship and fasting. It doesn’t really say how long the fasted, but one sees here the relationship between fasting and prayer. The worship would have included scripture study, and the Lord’s Supper, as well as prayer. They seemed to be anticipating something, but not yet sure what. Then the Holy Spirit tells them. And Paul and Barnabus are set aside for the work. Here again, it is done with fasting and prayer. It was a regular part of the early church to fast, for special occasions like this. The Bridegroom wasn’t among them. When the fasting and prayer were finished, they ended a sentence with a preposition to mark the occasion. They sent them off.
It doesn’t say here where they are sent. First they go to Cyprus. There is an odd thing here. Today we think of mission trips as going to foreign lands. Growing up I spent three years globetrotting as my dad prepared to go to Africa and then did. He had to learn a foreign language, and cultural customs. The work was being funded by one of the greatest mission societies ever formed, a great legacy of the Lutheran Church, in a small German hamlet named Bleckmar. They trained and sent missionaries all over the world, and still do so. And something seems lost to me today as college kids spend springbreak on mission trips and call themselves missionaries, often not even having bothered to learn the language of the host country they are going to. But then as we venture further into a post-colonial world, I imagine this will more and more become the norm for foreign missions. And the old mission societies will find new purpose. Today places like Africa and Asia have many fine homegrown pastors. It is the west that is in need of missionaries. And so it is that missions is really taking on more and more the character of Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul’s travels took him to different lands, but rarely a different culture. Even when he gets to Rome he is among Greek speaking people. It was the language he grew up with, the language he knew, the people and customs he knew. And why not? But this does mark a change.

Previously the gospel had spread as persecution scattered the Christians to new places of refuge. Now the gospel is going on the offensive. Now these two are deliberately going to preach gospel in new places, deliberately traveling to share the gospel with others who have not heard. One doesn’t have to travel far to do the same today. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

God's Shower of Grace

 23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:23-27 (ESV)
“The Baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
Jesus asks this question of those who don’t believe in him, who refused to believe in John the Baptist. He asks this of men who were too filled with their own righteousness to acknowledge need for the repentance John preached, whose egos were too proud to accept the grace and mercy Christ offered. It was a question not only meant to get him out of danger, but to prick their consciences, to make themselves reconsider their situation.  It is a question that might be asked today of Christ’s baptism, where do you say it comes from? For though they are not the same, they are as related to each other as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, of law and of Gospel, repentance and faith. The question at bottom is, is it something we do for God, or is it a shower of God’s grace? Is it our work, from man, or God’s work, Christ’s commission that comes from heaven? How you answer is the difference of faith itself, in faith in self, and faith in God, reliance on your works, and trust in God’s grace.
The men in question had once asked John the same thing. “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Just who are you? And if you are not the Christ, if you are not Elijah then why do you baptize?” They themselves had come to believe the Messiah would baptize in the manner that Ezekiel had promised when speaking for God he said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (Ezekiel 36:25-26 (ESV) Ezekiel had promised a baptism, and now there was a man baptizing. Could he be the one?
It was the question that everyone had regarding John. But John was adamant that he was not the Messiah, not the Christ. He even denied being Elijah, though he shared the same dress and diet. He only said that he was coming to prepare the way of the lord, to make straight the highway. He came preaching repentance, preaching the law, that the people would be prepared for him who was to come after, the man of whom John said would baptize in the manner of which Ezekiel spoke, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is the baptism we have all received, the one baptism of which Eph. 4 speaks, in which we were buried into Christ’s death, so that just as he was raised from the dead, we too might walk in the newness of life. It is this baptism which Christ commissioned when in Matthew 28 he tells the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them all that I have commanded you.”
John’s baptism, from heaven or from man? The elders, the chief priests, they could not answer this question truthfully, for to do so would be to acknowledge Jesus of whom John the Baptist prophesied. To do so would be to admit that it was Jesus who was the messiah. And to say that his baptism was from man would anger the crowds. The Elders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Chief Priests did not understand the baptism of John, they did not understand their need for repentance, they thought they were good enough and had followed the law well enough to earn their own salvation. And it was precisely this for which they had to repent.

Christ’s baptism, from heaven or from man? Far too many believe that baptism is a matter of man, of man pledging himself to God, of man obeying the law of our Lord. And with this they deny the children and suffer them so that they cannot come to Christ. Those who answer this way do not find themselves with Christ, but against Christ, for with Christ there is no middle ground. He did not come to give new laws, to stoke one’s own ego but to save the lost. He came to give us righteousness, to save us from our sin, and to this end he gave us baptism, a heavenly shower that cleanses us from our sin and gives us the Holy Spirit, that we would be his own and live under him in his kingdom and by his grace serve him in everlasting innocence, righteousness and blessedness. And so you do, because you have been raised from death to walk in the newness of life in a baptism, not from man, but from the God who became man for us men and our salvation, who died on the cross was buried and rose again that he might shower us with grace from heaven in a sprinkling of clean water that washes us from our uncleanliness, cleanse us from our idols, and gives us his Holy Spirit, takes from us a heart of stone, and gives us life in a heart of flesh. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Death of Herod

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.
 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.
 25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from [2] Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. (Acts 12:20-25 (ESV)
More can be learned of Herod’s death in the works of Josephus. Herod was planning a resistance against Rome and so on. Eaten by worms, it is something that happens to us in death. For it to happen in life, to be eaten alive by worms infesting your wounds and abscesses is a bit more than painful. Luke says an angel struck him down because he didn’t give God the glory. He a king of the Jews was setting himself up to be a god in the manner of so many eastern and Roman tyrants. So Herod dies, who had started a persecution of the church, and this paves the way for the word of God to increase and multiply.
Luke gives the credit of growth in the church to the word of God alone. It increases and multiplies, not the church, not the people but the word of God.

And all of this seems to happen while Saul and Barnabas are in Jerusalem on behalf of Antioch delivering the coin they had gathered for relief of the poor. As they return to Antioch, they bring John Mark with them. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Introduction of Mark

 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” [1] Then he departed and went to another place.
 18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there. (Acts 12:11-19 (ESV)

The introduction of John Mark, or as most of us know him, Mark, the evangelist. This is where the Christians of Jerusalem had been holding a prayer vigil for Peter. There prayers had been answered and they could hardly believe it. They think it is Peter’s angel, not Peter himself. In any case, Peter doesn’t stay long but leaves for another place. It doesn’t say where, many believe that it was at this time that Mark and Peter first went to Rome. Mark also worked with Paul, Barnabus and Luke. But for the most part Mark was Peter’s administrative assistant. His gospel was written at the feet of Peter who considered it his gospel.
Before Peter leaves he tells the congregation to let James and the brothers know. These would be the brothers of Jesus who had come to believe in the resurrection and despite having tried to kill Jesus during his life, had come to have respected positions in the Early Church of Jerusalem. James would be the first post apostolic bishop of Jerusalem. Whether he was the one who wrote the book we know of as James is up for considerable debate.
Herod isn’t happy, orders the death of the soldiers who were to guard Peter and heads to Caeserea, where he can live as the Roman he is.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Lord Saves Peter from Martyrdom

“6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12:6-11 (ESV)
That had to be like waking up in a Salvador Dali painting, except he woke up in the midst of this very real world, came to himself. The Angel springs Peter from prison on the night when he was going to be beheaded. Peter is too dumbfounded to know what is happening until it is done.  This won’t be the last time disciples are sprung from prison in Acts. But this time the jailers are left to their own fate. In later events God will use the event to save the jailer too.

Peter, responds to it all, sure that the Lord sent his angel to rescue him from the hand of Herod. Peter it seems was ready to dies a martyr, but God wasn’t ready for him to die a martyr. This would happen much later in Rome, where Peter would be crucified upside down insisting he was not worthy to die in the manner of his Lord. There too Peter will go willingly to his death rather than deny Jesus Christ. But Martyrdom is up to the Lord. It isn’t something that we seek, or run away from. We know that to die is gain. But every day that we wake up alive in this world is a day that the Lord has use for us, a day that he has bestowed upon us to live, and suffer this world under his grace knowing that he has secured for us our salvation.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Generosity of the Vineyard Owner

20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius [1] a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ [2] 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
(Matthew 20:1-16 (ESV)
“You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” Right, the word has the connotation of righteous, and just. It’s a peculiar point in the parable of the vineyard. The hiring practices of this man are strange. In fact, the man doesn’t seem to be hiring anyone at all. It is as if he doesn’t care about the work, near as much as he cares about these people looking for work. He tells them to go into the vineyard, I’ll give you whatever is right. So they went. They don’t ask about payment, they just go, taking the man at his word. They trust him. Same with all the people he hires after.
But the first people, the ones up in the town square ready to work at six A.M. He agrees with them for a denarius. I mean, it’s fun to speculate who these different groups are, what’s motivating them.  The bills that need to be paid, the mouths that need to be fed. Perhaps they are saving to buy their wives a special present for an upcoming anniversary. Maybe they are hoping to earn enough to buy a lamb to sacrifice in the temple as a dedication for a new born son, as Mary and Joseph did with Jesus, being poor and settled on turtle doves instead. A sacrifice foreshadowing his own death, the sacrifice with which he gives you righteousness, that which is right.
I mean, why is it that you work? What are your motivations? How much more real have those become when you were out of work? When the bills start coming in and you start wondering what you can afford or not afford. And sleepless nights tossing and turning, wondering when you might find a job to help get you out of the hole. Then you begin to realize what a privilege it is to work, especially if you love your job. The peace of mind a paycheck offers helps to keep your sanity in a world where it isn’t hard to see others with no job, poor and destitute.
A denarius, today would be a couple hundred dollars. The kind of pay that puts a smile on a teenager’s face as he contemplates Friday night with friends, or perhaps dinner with a date. Not bad pay for an adult either if it is steady. The kind of pay that keeps a man sane.
And perhaps now we see what a privilege it was for these men to be working, to be hired so early for a denarius. One wonders what the others thought. They showed up late to the market place. The chances of being hired slim, those looking for labor show up in the morning and look for those eager to work, disciplined to take advantage of the early morning day light, get things done before the heat of the sun slows the progress. When the vineyard owner comes looking for reinforcements at the third hour, they washed with relief. Any pay is better than no pay. At least they don’t have to show up in the empty handed at the end of the day. They understand what they are being given with a sigh of relief when the vineyard owner tells them, “Whatever is right I will give to you.” Those hired at the eleventh hour go to work without hesitation, glad to have the work, trusting that what is right will be given to them.

“What is right I will give you.” The work, the pay, the peace of mind, all was gift, and they went to work with joy. This is the kingdom of God. All of it gift. None of it deserved. We are given the work and with it righteousness. We are benefactors of the Lord’s generosity, the forgiveness of sins. The work itself given to us as gift, from a generous, loving and benevolent employer, and the righteousness he gives is more than we could ever earn, the righteousness of his Son, who died to give you his inheritance, crucified to make you coheirs of heaven. Such is the generosity of God. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Herod Kills James

12:1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:1-5 (ESV)
Agrippa I, known as Herod to the Jewish people over whom he was king. This is the Grandson of Herod the Great who built so many charming palaces and cities in Judea, but also slaughtered the innocents while trying to murder Jesus. Agrippa had been raised in the house of Caesar since he was four, and was friends with Claudius. He was a Hellenist at heart, but couldn’t be seen as one among the Jews, where like his grandfather he tried to appease the Pharisees, while carrying on his life like any gentile King. This is what the dynasty was known for. In public they portrayed piety, in private the perverse. Which is to say, they were in many ways like all the rest of us who hide our sins and try to put on a better show in public. Of course, they were on a grander scale and were often led to do things because of that that is hard to comprehend. Agrippa, though, he was raised in Caesars house, as a son of the Roman Emperor. It’s hard to imagine the licentiousness with which this man grew up. He was known to put on gladiator shows to entertain his friends. Murder for the fun of it. It’s doubtful he was a stranger to the sensual pleasures and sexual perversions of Rome. And now he is in a backwater, with these people who are intolerant of such things. Constantly having to indulge his urges, and yet putting on a show so as not to offend the piety of his people. A slave of sin pretending a servant of virtue.
Then there is James the brother of John, the disciple. Here’s a man of the church, this new sect that the Jews do not like. The church had become more open to the gentiles. They were evangelizing among them. And this made the Jews mad, and it made Agrippa upset. Christianity still does this, it offends the virtuous as much as it offends the licentious. Forgiveness offends the worshipers of the law, love offends the worshipers of vice. The message of Christ offended both sides of Agrippa. The  killing of James was a no brainer. He meets martyrdom.

Nothing is really said about how he was caught or what he was imprisoned for. But that Rome was persecuting the church pleased the Jews, and so it continued all the more. Agrippa could slake his thirst for blood and make happy the people at the same time. So next Peter, but the church would pray earnestly, Luke says. It plays out differently.