Category: Acts (page 1 of 10)

Church People: Part 3

“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself. They are disembodied entities. They are heard and learned and apprehended and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears and hearts but living people who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ours is an incarnational faith, not a disembodied abstraction. That’s how our God works in us and through us for the sake of the world. People don’t get agitated over what they can’t see. People don’t risk their lives for invisible concepts. Only a visible flesh-and-blood people church works, because salvation is not a one-time, single event. Salvation is not just having your name moved from the “unsaved” column to the Book of Life when you’re baptized. Salvation is restoration, reconciliation, transformation, and healing. Yes, it starts by being united to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it continues — in fits and starts, off and on, usually slowly, but surely — in the Church. By looking at each other across the table during the communion meal and discerning the body. By learning how to worship and serve together. By practicing love and mercy together. By forgiving others and receiving that forgiveness. By experiencing acceptance and belonging.

You can’t get that from an ideal concept or an abstract theology. You can only feel that and experience that together in a broken and messy church-people church.

So when we stand together and recite the two-thousand-year-old words of the Apostles’ Creed, we can say we believe in the holy, universal Church. We believe that in this place, in this assembly, God is at work. We don’t believe in the Church; the Church is not the object of our faith. But we do believe that in this congregation, whenever we come together, the Holy Spirit’s saving, sanctifying, transforming work is taking place.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up one part, but of many… In fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be… Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” ~1 Corinthians 12

Our Father brought the Church into the world the same way he brought our Savior into the world: by a miracle. The miracle of the Church is every bit as miraculous as the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Thirty-something years later, that same Holy Spirit of God descended upon 120 men and women praying in an upper room in Jerusalem. Mary was with them. The first Holy Spirit conception gave us Jesus as a person. The second Holy Spirit conception gave us the Church, Jesus as a people.

It was a miracle that didn’t look that grand or important. God was working in and through the powerless, the vulnerable, the weak. Not very different from any random congregation you might look up today. Just like your church. And mine. A group of people who are not wise by human standards, not influential, not of noble birth; just weak and lowly flesh-and-blood people.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!” ~Ephesians 3:20-21

Peace,

Allan

Evidence of the Grace of God

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” ~Act 11:23

Barnabas saw things in Antioch that proved to him God was active and working among the Christians there. He saw visible proof, tangible evidence that God’s grace was having an important impact. Part of the proof was that disconnected disciples were becoming one in Christ. They were unified in spirit.

“During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world (this happened during the reign of Claudius). The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” ~Acts 11:27-30

In our society today, we have perfected the art of screaming at each other. I say we’ve perfected it because God help us if there are more levels of that to attain. If we still have a ways to go in developing newer methods of yelling, insulting, labeling, ignoring, fighting, and separating from one another, God help us.

Our first impulse is to define our differences. Our worst habit is dividing. We have black churches and white churches. We have blue churches and red churches. Rich churches and poor churches. Progressive churches and traditional churches. And hundreds of different denominations. What can be done about that?

God’s grace. Only the power of God’s grace.

This is the work of Jesus, right? This is what Jesus does. He’s got Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in the same band! That’s like having Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump in the same house church! And Jesus tells both of them: Knock it off! I’m in charge! We’re not into identity politics here! We’re not motivated by our differences! We’re on a mission from God for the Kingdom of God compelled by the grace of God that’s bringing all things and all people together in Christ!

You’ve got a really volatile thing in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians, slave and free, rich and poor, Mediterranean culture and Syrian desert culture — all kinds of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. And they’re all united together by the blood of Christ. Their life in Christ is bigger and more important than their differences. The mission is bigger and more important than their comfort or their preferences.

And what about the gift? They’re sending money to the church in Jerusalem. They’re sending their own financial resources to the brothers and sisters they’ve never met in a different culture 300 miles away. It’s extraordinary! How does this happen?

Barnabas sees it as evidence of God’s grace.

Do we see that kind of counter-cultural Christian unity in our churches today? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

What Else Barnabas Saw

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad…” ~Acts 11:23

The Jerusalem church leaders sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the news that Gentiles there were being baptized. Is it legit? What are they being taught? How are they worshiping? Who’s leading them? Can we sign off on this? I’m not sure what the specific concerns might have been, but we do know that when Barnabas arrived, he clearly saw physical, tangible proof that God was at work. What did he see? Can we see those same things today? And are we even looking for those things?

“The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:21

Barnabas saw sinners turning their lives to Christ. They believed the Good News that God through Jesus was putting everything back together again. The persecuted proclaimers knew it, the new disciples in Antioch understood it, Barnabas saw it, and we need to believe it! We don’t trust in God’s Word, we don’t believe in God’s power, we don’t believe in God if we don’t think it’s possible in our churches and throughout our cities. Barnabas saw sinners stop sinning. And that’s what you and I need to be looking for, too. That should be our expectation.

But we have this attitude that we expect to keep sinning. Before we ever get out of bed in the morning, before our feet ever touch the floor, we know that we’re human and that we’re going to sin sometime before dinner. What is that?!? Where does that come from?!? Not from the Bible. I know we can’t be completely perfect this side of glory. We’re not saints. Randy Harris defines “saint” as someone who’s life hasn’t been sufficiently researched. But what is this concession to sin?

“Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” ~Romans 6:1-4

God’s grace is the avenue for genuine repentance and change. Where there is God’s grace, you’re going to see changed lives. By the same token, f your life is not changed, perhaps you have not personally received the grace of God — you’re rejecting it or denying it or something. It is God’s grace that motivates and initiates real change. It is God’s grace that empowers you and me to say “no” to sin.

“The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” ~Titus 2:11-14

The grace of God has given us the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That ought to be enough, but it seems like it takes more to get us excited nowadays. We’re jaded. Bored. I know, Jesus saved us by dying on the cross. Yeah, yeah. Yawn. Are you kidding?!?! That is stark raving mad!!!

Jesus has delivered us from our bondage to sin! Jesus has rescued us from our slavery to death! We belong to a loving and gracious God through our risen and reigning Lord! Jesus is reigning right now at the right hand of God! He’s taken office! The ascension is huge! We don’t talk about the ascension enough! Jesus is in charge right now! And he doesn’t reign like Queen Elizabeth — he absolutely rules! And we humbly give our whole lives over to him! We say “No” to sin every day, every hour, and “Yes” to his gracious rule!

With a lot of exclamation points!

That’s what Barnabas saw in Antioch as proof of God’s grace. Is your life radically changed by the love of God in Christ? Do we see dramatically changed lives in our churches? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

What Barnabas Saw

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad…” ~Acts 11:23

When the church leaders in Jerusalem got word that the Greeks in Antioch were turning to the Lord, they sent Barnabas there to check things out. And what Barnabas saw convinced him that God was surely at work. He saw proof of the grace of God. It’s probably a good idea for us to try to identify the things Barnabas saw and look for those things in our own churches. Pay attention to those things. Give special consideration to those things.

Certainly Barnabas was impressed that these persecuted Christians were so boldly sharing the Gospel.

These Christians from Jerusalem / Israel were in the throes of oppression. Their friends and relatives were being beaten and thrown into prison. At least one of their leaders, Stephen, had been killed. They’d been scattered all over the world, separated from their relatives and communities. But “those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). Those who wound up in Antioch found themselves in the middle of one of the most wicked cities in the Empire. And we don’t have even a hint of anyone complaining or questioning God. What they saw through the eyes of faith was not their negative circumstances — they saw a massive opportunity for the Kingdom.

Acts 8 gives us the story of Philip in Samaria. And now we have these unnamed disciples in Antioch.

“Some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the Good News about the Lord Jesus.” ~Acts 11:20

We are not in the same situation in the United States in 2019. But it’s similar. I think we can draw parallels.

Christianity does not enjoy a favored status in the Empire of the United States anymore. The government no longer props up the Church here. The culture has turned against our Lord and his people. We’re on the outside of power now in the U.S. and on the way to being marginalized. On the way to persecution. You can pretend it’s not happening, but that doesn’t make it less true. We’re there. Jesus is no longer honored, his Church is no longer respected, and his truth is no longer believed in this country.

How do we see that?

We must see this as a tremendous opportunity! This is an incredibly exciting time! There’s all kinds of potential for miraculous Holy Spirit adventure here! We’re in uncharted territory that’s testing our faith and stretching our resolve. This is the best time — the perfect time! — for God to work in and through his Church to do something none of us has ever thought of or imagined! He’s capable. He’s done it countless times before. Do we see it? Are we even looking for it?

These unnamed disciples, these persecuted Christians who first started talking to the Greeks in Antioch — I wish we knew more about them. All we know is that in the middle of trouble they didn’t hide. They didn’t keep quiet for fear of offending someone. They didn’t compromise the Gospel or water down the truth for fear of getting in trouble. In a strange and sinful land, as outsiders in almost every sense of the word, they did not shrink from the mission. They proclaimed the Gospel of Christ!

How? How in the world could they be so bold? So confident? Fearless? Well, it was clear to Barnabas: only by the grace of God, which empowered them to share the Good News.

Do we see that same grace of God in our churches today? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

Seeing God’s Grace

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” ~Acts 11:23

When the mother church in Jerusalem read in the Christian Chronicle that the Greeks in Antioch — a very un-Christian city — were believing and repenting and turning to the Lord, they sent Barnabas to investigate. Three hundred miles north. Into the un-Christian heart of a very un-Christian culture in a very un-Christian city.

I’m not sure why they sent Barnabas. It looks like this was the habit, or maybe even the policy, of the Jerusalem church: We send delegates to check out new ministries. In Acts 8, they sent Peter and John to Samaria when they found out the people there were turning to Christ. The better question is: What was the attitude of these Jerusalem church leaders? Were they excited about the new converts in Antioch or were they suspicious? Were they glad about the news that Greeks were being baptized or were they skeptical? What were they looking for? We know that some of the church leaders in Jerusalem had just gotten in Peter’s face at the beginning of Acts 11 because he was eating with Gentiles. What were their motives here?

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, I’m sure he found them worshiping differently than what he was used to in Jerusalem. I’m sure they dressed differently and acted differently. Maybe they knelt for prayers instead of standing. They probably sang songs Barnabas had never heard before. Maybe they did communion after the sermon, maybe the preacher in Antioch didn’t wear a tie — shocking, scandalous things!

This seems like the watershed event for the spread of Christianity to Gentiles, people like you and me. This is a critical crossroads moment. Followers of Jesus were first called Christians here in Antioch. Antioch became a great hub of Christian missionary activity to reach the whole world with the Gospel. All of Paul’s missionary journeys would originate from Antioch. Barnabas could have squashed all of that depending on his report. What he saw and how he understood what he saw would carry a lot of weight in Jerusalem.

So Barnabas shows up and he doesn’t hold court. He doesn’t call any witnesses or convene some kind of investigation or hearing. He didn’t go around asking questions or taking notes. Barnabas was looking for something. And he saw it. He saw the proof of God’s grace among these Gentiles.

Again, some of the church leaders in Jerusalem were ticked off at Peter for eating dinner with Gentiles. So a lot of this has to do with a spiritual mindset, a godly vision and attitude. What are you looking for?

Two Christians can look at the exact same thing and come up with two very different conclusions. The very news that fills a generous spirit with joy fills a sectarian with anger and jealousy. Gentiles are receiving the Word of God and becoming Christians! Wonderful news! How can anybody think otherwise?

To some Christians, any change is to be resisted if it threatens to break down familiar fences. If it forces us to widen our fellowship.

These church leaders who are fussing at Peter are no doubt waiting for Barnabas to send the troubling news back from Antioch: It’s Gentiles, alright. And you can’t believe what they’re doing in worship. The way they dress. The way they sing and pray. It’s different. Somebody in Jerusalem should write a strongly-worded letter.

But Barnabas — a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith — sees the evidence of the grace of God and he was glad. So, what did Barnabas see? What did he see that made him so sure God was at work in Antioch? Can we see those same things today? Are we even looking for those things?

Peace,

Allan

Body of Christ: Part Two

It’s not just a metaphor. It’s very real. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the physical, tangible, concrete, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in this world. Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live; Christ lives in me!” Jesus Christ lives with and in and through his Church. Jesus and the Church are the same. You can’t have Jesus without his body. You can’t know Jesus without recognizing his body. You can’t be in relationship with Jesus and have nothing to do with his body.

That’s the way Jesus sees it. That’s how he talks about it. That’s how he’s always viewed it. Jesus is the Church; the Church is Jesus.

Saul’s on the road to Damascus when Jesus appears and blinds him with his light. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s thinking, “I’m not persecuting you. I’m beating up these lousy Christians who are blaspheming Scripture.” No, in the eyes of Jesus, you mess with the Church, you’re messing with Jesus himself.

It was always this way.

“He who listens to you, listens to me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who rejects you, rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who receives you, receives me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Jesus authorizes the Church as his body on earth to do all the things he did.

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near!'” (Luke 10:9)

On that last night he tells his gathered followers, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (John 14:12)

And we do, right? We heal the sick and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. And we turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? Jesus says so you can be like me. So you can become sons and daughters of your Father in heaven. So you can reveal me.

When we forgive the ones who sin against us, people see Jesus. When we’d rather be wronged than to fight for our rights, people see Jesus. When we sacrifice and serve, when we consider the needs of others more important than our own, people will meet the Lord Jesus in us.

And the world will treat us just like it treated Jesus. Paul says he carries in his own body the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus may be revealed, so that Jesus’ life may be revealed in our (plural) mortal body (singular).

So, as the Body of Christ, we always side with the oppressed, never the oppressors. We always stand with the minorities, we always take care of the refugees, we always look out for the weak. We never discriminate, never judge, and never use force. We always give, always forgive, and always show love.

Jesus is the Church and the Church is Jesus. We must do the things Jesus did in the ways Jesus did them. If anybody’s going to meet Jesus in this world, they’re going to meet him through the Church, the Body of Christ.

Peace,

Allan

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