Friday, August 29, 2014

God Fearing Man

10:1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day [1] he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:1-8 (ESV)
“A devout man who feared God.”  The transition continues with Cornelius and Italian. Not far from Joppa which provides modern day Israel with its main port, was Caesarea Maritime. Maritime distinguishes it from all the other Caesarea built and named to flatter the emperor. This is a very beautiful place to visit if you are in Israel. It had a manmade harbor with a very elegant break water the ruins of which are still awe inspiring.  And earthquake with a monstrous rip tide destroyed this harbor a long time ago. But in the first century this was the capitol of Rome in the area. This is where the proconsuls would live, men like Pontias Pilate and Felix, who would only visit Jerusalem occasionally out of necessity. This was a Roman city, with shrines and temples dedicated to  Roman gods, and an amphitheater dedicated to Roman entertainment. And here was the headquarters of the Italian cohort to whom Cornelius belonged.

They say he was a God fearing man. This basically means he was a Jew in everything but race and circumcision. He was a proselyte who believed in the God of Israel as the only God. Regularly went to synagogue, kept the distinction of foods and things clean and unclean. And was considered a brother by the Jews because he shared the same faith. Who knows why he hadn’t been circumcised yet. Perhaps he  was planning on it, and waiting for a time he could take a couple weeks off to deal with swelling and pain. It isn’t something a man just does. But as long as he was not yet circumcised he was still a gentile. Yet his prayers were heard, and an angel has him send for Peter. This whole episode is meant to prepare Peter for the mission to the gentiles which Barnabus and Paul will embark on shortly. It is meant to convince Peter that the Christian faith isn’t meant to be a mere Jewish sect but to blossom into a universal religion for all peoples everywhere. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peter's Visitation

32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. [3] She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics [4] and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.  (Acts 9:32-43 (ESV)
Luke now gives us two episodes from the travels of Peter that are building up to a transition in his narrative. These narratives are meant to show the position of Peter in the early church. Already as part of his Apostolic office he is taking on the tasks later associated with that of a Bishop, namely visitation. He goes as a missionary also, to be sure. There is no apostle, bishop or pastor that is not also a missionary or evangelist. But these trips are concerned with visiting congregations already established and not planting new ones. Both in Lydda and in Joppa there are already Christians. Peter goes to measure their welfare, to see how these congregations are faring, to clear up doctrinal questions, to teach and so forth. The kind of thing that in theory is handed to our Circuit Visitors within the LCMS.
During his travels he heals one person and raises another from the dead. These miracles served as signs for the entire community and caused the people to convert, to “turn to the Lord.” This was the point for which the disciples were given these abilities. It wasn’t for side show entertainment of the type a person so often sees on T.V these days. Rather than Peter amassing a huge following, the people turn to the Lord. They understand that it is Christ doing these things through Peter. It is also an attestation to Peter’s privileged place as an apostle. The other Christians didn’t do these things, Peter did them. It was not due to lack of faith on behalf of these Christians that they were unable to raise the dead or heal the sick. But it was a sign that these men walked in the ways of the Lord with his particular blessing. They were given his authority.

After Peter raises Tabitha, he stays with Simon, a tanner. This is the transition point. In a short while the text will become almost completely occupied with the exploits of Paul among the gentiles. So the  story of Peter is coming to a climax as he stays with a tanner. The point of it is that Peter is breaking with Jewish tradition and the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. He is no longer worried about keeping himself clean in the Old Testament spiritual sense. Scrupulous Jews would not have wanted to stay in the house  of a tanner, not only because of the stench surrounding such an abode, but also because the constant contact with dead animals would mean that one would be constantly not clean. It was things like that that made the possibility of being a respected Pharisee a proposition unattainable for the average Jew in the first century. You actually had to have wealth enough to pay someone else to do all your dirty work so you could keep your hands clean. In other words, your position depended on you keeping others down and inferior to you if you were a Pharisee. And this is why Jesus chastises them for not lifting a finger to help the others with their burden. It was this sort of hypocrisy that Paul a former Pharisee would understand so well as going along with the requirement to circumcise. It is this sort of thing Paul could point to in Peter to say, you though a Jew live like a  “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14 (ESV)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Comfort of the Holy Spirit

31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:31 (ESV)
Ah, peace. It is a pleasant thing when a church is granted a period of peace. Here it is the church as far as it reaches at this time, throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria. The Holy Spirit gives it paraklesis, comfort. Jesus had once called the Holy Spirit the paraklete, the comforter. Luther describes this comfort as that which a lawyer gives his client in times of deep distress. We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous one. The Holy Spirit is his spokesman.  It’s an analogy that a person gets quickly if he has ever been in need of legal counsel. It goes hand in hand with fear of the Lord.
I mean it is quite easy to read law and gospel into this little section of scripture. The law does its job when it creates a fear of the Lord. We are sinners and we ought to tremble a bit before the Lord. We do not stand righteous before him. We are all guilty before him. At least we are if left to our own devices, to stand on our own feet. All we have earned before God is guilt. No, that is it. No, I don’t care to hear of all the good things you have done, you are an unworthy servant who has not managed to do a tenth of what is demanded of you in God’s law, but you expect to be rewarded for doing something you weren’t asked to do. That is the reality of our position before God. We have neither loved him with our whole heart or our neighbor. The best of our moments are nothing to brag about, but we do anyway. Before God we need an advocate. We have it in Jesus, he is our righteousness, our glorious dress.  And it is with this gospel that the Holy Spirit comforts us, pointing us to Christ, pointing us to the cross and the resurrection, training our minds on things above where Christ is, our advocate, sitting at the right hand of God the Father. This comfort is a peace that surpasses understanding.
It is through this comfort and peace that the church is edified, built up. It is through this work that the church multiplies.
I am not sure what is to be said that this period of peace and edification is something that the church experiences in the wake of sending Paul off to Tarsus. There always seems to be a calm before the storm and a calm after the storm. Neither should the storm be feared. They can be trying times in the church. Congregations are full of sinners. Sometimes it takes a storm to shake things up and get people to see themselves in that light. To finally restore a fear of the Lord in their own lives, a fear that is necessary if they are ever going to be comforted by the Holy Spirit, and truly understand their need for an advocate in the Son, Jesus Christ, the righteous one. Far too often, it is easy to mistake peace with complacency. And this complacency is never the result of God’s word. It does not edify. That is it does not build up in Christ. Complacency builds up one’s own ego. Complacency says, I’m not that bad all in all. In any case I’m not so much a sinner that I have anything to fear from God. This is the sort of lukewarm idiocy that Jesus can do nothing with but spit out. But when the storm comes, then the gospel comes. It is when we are shaken to the core, then the Spirit comes to edify and to comfort, and that sort of comfort allows the church to grow, yes numerically to multiply, but more important than that the growth that is needed before it is possible for the church to multiply, spiritual growth in the congregation that causes it to appreciate what it has as a church, and what it is as a church the body of Christ, forgiven sinners who have an advocate with the Father. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Paul To Tarsus

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, [1] lowering him in a basket.
26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. [2] But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. (Acts 9:23-30 (ESV)

Paul begins to feel straight way some of this suffering that Jesus said he would do for the sake of his name. Already  in Damascus  Jews plot to kill him because of the gospel.  We know from Galatians that at this time Paul left for Arabia, which would have been anywhere just outside the gates of Damascus and stayed there three years. We don’t know much about this time except that Paul was busy learning and seems to have received follow up revelations from the Lord.  We don’t know where in Arabia he went, or if he preached there. Acts just skips to his return to Jerusalem.  Scripture does this, it doesn’t record all the details. In Matthew we learn Jesus went to Egypt as a boy. In Luke it doesn’t mention anything about Egypt but has him growing up in Nazareth. The authors have different concerns. Luke had different concerns than Paul while writing Acts than Paul did in writing Galatians. He isn’t writing a biography in which he wants to record every detail of Paul’s life.
In any case when Paul reaches Jerusalem many of the disciples are afraid of him and won’t accept him. They still remember the persecutions. Barnabus makes another appearance. He vouches for Paul. And with Barnabus vouching for him Paul is able to begin his work there in Jerusalem. The disciples there will see his abilities, hear his doctrine and understand what it is he is doing before he will be sent to the gentiles.

He disputes against the Hellenists who then seek to kill him. These would be Greek speaking Jews. The same ones with whom Stephen got mixed up, the same ones Saul had helped kill Stephen. Paul himself would have been considered a Hellenist having grown up in Tarsus. One wonders the nature of the dispute he has with them at this time. Obviously it centered on Christ. Though I also wonder if it had already spread to the nature of Christian freedom and that Greeks too could be saved without circumcision or giving up pork. These things will play a role later on in Paul’s ministry as many Jewish Christians begin to think that the way to convert Jews is to our Judaize them in adherence to the law. The same approach that Baptists try to take in converting Mormons in Utah. Little talk of forgiveness, or Jesus’ death and resurrection etc. and a lot of talk about who can abstain from alcohol the best. In any case because of the threats again Paul he is given an escort to Caeserea and put on a boat back to his hometown of Tarsus where he will spend some time on ice before he is summoned by the church to start his missionary work. Moe in his biography of Paul thinks that Paul may have stayed in Tarsus for up to three years before getting back to his work as a missionary. What he did in the meantime is anyone’s guess. But Tarsus was known for its tent makers in antiquity, mostly because of the goat hair fabric they used. The goats supplying this wandered the Taurus mountains overlooking the city. And tent-making would play a long role in Paul’s life. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Blessed are You

Blessed are You 

Who Do You Say that I Am?

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock [2] I will build my church, and the gates of hell [3] shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed [4] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20 (ESV)
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!” For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven.”  It is a familiar theme in scripture. “No one knows the Father except the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father and anyone to whom the son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11) “And no one speaking in the Spirit ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 11) These are the words of Scripture that prompt Luther to write in the explanation of the third article of the creed, “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctifies and keeps me in the one true faith.” Because the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to bring to faith those whom the Father chooses to reveal the Son. And this he does through the preaching of his word, and baptism, and it is through the word and the Lord’s Supper that he keeps and sustains us in the one true faith, in his church where he daily and richly forgives all our sins, because it is our Lord’s joy to do so.
You can hear the joy in the voice of the Lord as he exclaims, blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah! It is the joy of faith, the joy of salvation, the joy shared with angels who rejoice over even one sinner who repents, it is miraculous joy because salvation is beyond our control, faith is beyond our ability, and confession is the work of the Holy Spirit welling up from out of otherwise sinful and hell bent hearts. Joy! Jesus has it because his disciples have finally confessed what the spirit has led their hearts to believe. They have finally confessed what they were too scared to confess before, that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord. Joy, because he could sense the joy that such a confession brings.
No one else dared say it. It was heard before. It was announced by angels. It came like an outburst from men confused and bewildered on a boat besieged by stormy seas. It came as the tortured cry of demons exposed, but the people dared not to say it. No, the people would say that Jesus was perhaps the Baptizer risen from the dead as Herod thought, or Elijah who was to be the forerunner of Jesus, or perhaps Jeremiah back from the dead to once again be rejected by the leaders of Israel, the same leaders who had such a hard time with Jesus. But the Messiah? The Christ? The words are interchangeable Messiah is Hebrew for the Greek word Christ. It means anointed. The anointed one. The one that careful study of the Old Testament had revealed to them would come. A man anointed to be king of kings, a leader without precedent in history. One who would change the fate of Israel. And they expected that if Jesus was this Christ the world would be at war. But they expected wrong about the messiah, when they expected earthly rule. It is why no one dared to confess what Peter confessed. It is why no one dared to confess this confession we share when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord.” No, this was the first time this was confessed as the answer to a question of who Jesus is.
It is an answer that many today will not accept. That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That Jesus is the king above all kings, the God to whom gods bow on bended knee. No, even today as with Islam people are willing to say that he was a prophet, a great prophet in the order of Elijah or Jeremiah. They will say he was a great moral teacher, but then ignore him. Or they won’t bother with him at all. But blessed are you who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, for you have been blessed. The Father has revealed his salvation to you in a king who is above all kings and a God who is above all gods, A God who has refused to let you wallow in sin and despair, but has taken upon himself the flesh and blood you share, and died on the cross for your redemption and was raised for your justification that having been baptized in his name you would walk in the newness of life, and live in the forgiveness that creates and sustains his church.

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Proving that Jesus is the Christ

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:20-22 (ESV)
“He is the Son of God.” So Luke summarizes the proclamation of Paul at this time. He had come to persecute the Christians, followers of “the Way”, and instead had joined them. He proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God and proving that Jesus is the Christ.
Here is an aside on the ESV translation of this passage. Estin, means is, third person present indicative. The Greek New Testament I have before me has Estin in both “He “Is” the Son of God,” and “Jesus “was/is” the Christ.” I really can’t say why they translated it “was” in the second half, perhaps they are using some obscure variant, or a slip of the mind. It’s easy to do that, to think of Christ in the past tense as if he were dead. But just as he is the Son of God who is eternal and present, so he is the Christ. He is still the Christ. He is still the Messiah. He is still that one for whom all of Israel waited, the one who would be anointed to be king of Israel, who would establish the eternal kingdom. And he has done this. The Church is his kingdom, and it is eternal. He has never given up the title Christ. And this is what Paul proved to the Jews in Damascus to their consternation.  
Of course this word can be translated a few different ways too. But here I think they  did well to translate it prove. Prove is a funny word. It’s most often and properly used in math and logic, geometry has proofs. Other scientific disciplines opt for probability. Some things have a higher probability than others, but it is hard to say that anything is proven to be true. Of course for the way this works is that once something has been shown to have a certain height of probability most people take it for granted that it is proved.
But it is a funny thing today when it comes to faith. Today people believe you can’t believe something that has been proved. Faith somehow requires it not to be demonstrated or proved. That if you can give a rational explanation or demonstration of it you know longer have faith. Apologetics is therefore marginalized as unchristian and counter productive. Well tell that to Paul and Peter for that matter. Neither of them thought that giving a rationalization for the faith detracted from a person’s ability to believe, or somehow compromised the work of the Holy Spirit. But it was precisely in and through a rational and reasonable presentation of the Gospel that Jesus is the Christ that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of man and calls them by the gospel as Luther hammers home in the third article of the creed. It isn’t something that we can do by our own reason or strength, but that doesn’t negate the Holy Spirit using our reason or appealing to our reason as he sets forth the faith as Paul does here in Damascus.
Paul though, has a particular advantage with his audience that we don’t always have today. He is arguing with people who take two things for granted that are not always taken for granted today. One that there is a God, and two that there would be a Christ. Today it is sometimes necessary to first prove that there is a God. And even when you do this you will find people who refuse to believe. Just the way it is. Proving doesn’t actually make anyone believe. Somehow one must inspire a person to first want to believe. People won’t believe what they don’t want to. And it is about that simple. We as humans are emotionally invested both in what we do believe and what we don’t believe, and this is true even if you have good reason for what you believe.

Paul though didn’t have to argue that. All he had to do is show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies these people already believed would be fulfilled. This in itself is a pretty amazing demonstration for the rationalization of the faith and presentation of the gospel being true. And most of it will fall into place by just showing the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts, that given the evidence at hand it makes more sense to believe Jesus rose from the dead then it does to not believe that he rose from the dead. But if he rose from the dead the most rational explanation is that he is the Son of God, and he is the Christ.