Category: Acts (page 1 of 8)

Church Habits

I have no idea why Jerry Seinfeld is playing in Midland, Texas tonight, but I do know Carrie-Anne and I will be on the floor of the Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center in our seats in the middle of Row 12! It’s a Christmas present from my super-cool wife and I’m excited beyond description. I’d drive to Midland to watch Seinfeld read a phone book.


Once a month our covenant group gets up early and serves breakfast to the folks staying at the League House. We hang out for a couple of hours and pray with people from out of town who have relatives in the hospitals here. A couple of weeks ago we met a guy named Jeff (not his real name) who’s from the Austin area. He and his wife and three kids had come up to be with Jeff’s brother who was in serious condition after suffering a terrible brain aneurysm.  As we’re talking with Jeff and hearing his story, he mentions that his wife is from Vietnam. Then, later in the conversation, Aleisha asked him, “How did you meet your wife?” And he told us a fascinating story.

The company he works for in Austin is headquartered in the D.C./Virginia area and they regularly send a woman from there to train the employees in Austin. This woman’s originally from Vietnam. So Jeff and this woman get to know each other in a friendly, working relationship kind of way. And one day she calls Jeff from Virginia, from completely out of the blue, and says her family is looking for someone to marry her sister so she can come to the states.

“Yeah, my sister can come to the U.S. if she has an American husband. So, if you know anybody who might be interested in helping us out…”
“I don’t know anybody who’d actually want to get married.”
“No, they don’t have to stay married. Only for a year or two. Then they can get divorced and she can stay in the U.S.”
“No, sorry, I don’t know anybody.”
“We’d pay him money.”
(short pause)
“Um… How much money?”
“We’d pay him $30,000.”
“Well, I think I might could get interested in that!”

So, Jeff agrees to do it. He’ll marry this lady from Vietnam, pocket the $30K, and they’ll split up later.

Now, here’s the catch. Jeff had to take three or four trips to Vietnam to sell everybody over there that it was legit. The family paid for the trips, but Jeff had to go to Vietnam to spend time with her. They had to go on dates together, eat dinner together, spend time with her family. They had to take a lot of pictures together and post them on social media. And the most important thing: when he’s in Austin, he had to write her letters. He had to call her and facetime her and send her gifts. He had to act like he was in love with her. He had to do things a guy in love would do.

And in the middle of all that, Jeff fell in love with her. For real.

He never would have thought himself into loving this young lady. He never could have studied himself into loving her. But he acted himself into it and he didn’t even know it was happening. He was forced by the circumstances into some habits that actually changed his feelings and his thinking. Doing what people in love do shaped him into a guy in love. They were married 14-years ago, they have three children, and he never took the $30,000.

Why do we go to church? We go to church because it makes us more like Jesus. Church is one of the main habits, one of the critical spiritual practices that shapes us into the people of God.

It’s hard to think yourself into loving others. It’s difficult to study yourself into considering the needs of others more important than your own. Being together around Word and Table puts us in the circumstances and into the habits that will, by God’s grace and the power of his Holy Spirit, actually change our feelings and thinking. Doing what Jesus does shapes us into the image of Jesus.

So many of us grew up going to church. It’s a habit of our lives that started before we can remember and possibly one that we sometimes see as very ordinary. Maybe even humdrum and boring. We can do church with our eyes closed, and sometimes do.

But what if we understood our church gatherings as sacramental encounters with our Lord? What if we believed God’s Spirit was powerfully at work during our songs and prayers, during the Scriptures and the meals, to transform us into the image of Christ? What if we allowed ourselves to be swept up into the habits of the church as formation practices through which our Lord meets us and moves us into better fitness for eternal life? What if we were filled with awe at the possibilities in front of us? What if we were filled with awe in the face of a vision of how we can be and how the world will be in the future? And what if that awe increases as the power of God’s Spirit heals us and transforms our lives?



Word and Table

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” ~Acts 2:42

The Greek word koinonea means fellowship. Communion. Sharing. Having things in common. Luke describes it in the above verse as eating together and praying together. That’s what makes a Christian assembly, those are the worship habits: Teaching and Fellowship. Scripture and Communion. Word and Table. That’s the time and place where everybody ministers together, everybody participates, everybody’s heard, everybody shares. God meets us, Jesus is present with us, and the Holy Spirit shapes us in our regular gatherings around Word and Table.

That two-thousand-year-old pattern, I believe, is based on the habits of Jesus during his ministry.

When Jesus taught, he generally did it in the context of a meal. He opened up the Scriptures and ministered to others around a common table. The Word is proclaimed and then the reality of the Word is practiced and experienced around the meal.

In Luke 14, Jesus is eating a Sabbath meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee and, as we would expect, he starts teaching: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

At the banquet at Levi’s house, Jesus gives us the Word: “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And he’s sitting around a table with tax collectors and prostitutes. The Table is the tangible experience of the Word.

With five-thousand hungry people in the wilderness, Jesus tells his apostles, “You give them something to eat. You engage the mission. You participate in serving others.” And then he empowers them to do just that. Then they all ate together, as much as they wanted.

At Zacchaeus’ house, the Word, the teaching: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost!” And around the meal, the hospitality and community of the Table: “Salvation has come to this house! This man is a son of Abraham!”

In John 13, on that last night before he was crucified, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. And some teaching. The evening meal was being served, the Bible says, and Jesus got up and washed everyone’s feet. A tremendous act of humble service. Jesus made himself the least important person in the room in order to serve others.

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

Our habits together around Word and Table shape how we think and act. It shapes us into a people who think and act like our Lord. Jesus gets up from the table during the meal to say to each of his followers to say, “I am your servant.” And he tells us to do the same for each other.

Some of us view our worship gatherings as a legal duty and everything has to be done exactly right. Some of us see our worship assemblies as an experience; it’s all about how it makes me feel, so there aren’t really any rules to follow. Some of us have grown up with no real understanding about community worship, so we don’t really think about it at all.

Our worship assemblies are the time and place where our living God meets us, where we all meet in the presence of God together. We are gathered by God’s Spirit around the Word. The Word of God reminds us who God is and what he’s doing and who we are and to whom we belong. The Word has to the power to teach us, train us, and transform us to continue the Kingdom work Jesus has already begun. The Word reorients us away from the shadows of this world’s fading kingdoms and toward the eternal realities of the Kingdom that has come and is coming.

And we experience those realities around the Table. The Holy Spirit brings us together around a meal where we actually experience God’s mercy, acceptance, wholeness, equality, compassion, and peace.

But we can get so wrapped up and bogged down in the details of our worship practices and the finer points of our traditions and our methods, that we don’t give much thought at all to the main point of our assemblies. We worry about how we do church and what we can and cannot do in church, forgetting this a Holy Spirit endeavor. All of this takes place in and by the Spirit.

We worship God in Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit who mediates God’s grace and the presence of Christ to us around Word and Table. God gathers us together. God initiates and enables our praise. God eats with us, the Holy Spirit prays with us and for us with groans we can never comprehend, Jesus intercedes for us. God gives us the words to say in our worship. God speaks to us through his Word and then places that Word into each heart in exactly the way he wants it to go. We are brought together in the presence of God and he’s the One doing everything!

We should relax about our rules and stop worrying about our methods and submit to what God’s Spirit wants to do. Instead of fretting about how we do church or how somebody else does church, we should pay more attention to how God does church.




Faith and Water

Since the mid-1500s, as a result of the Reformation, an increased focus on individual interpretation and the freedom to split up and start our own churches, Christians are all over the map on baptism. The specific beliefs and practices concerning baptism are diverse. Some Christians immerse in water, some Christians pour the water, and some merely sprinkle. Some Christians only baptize confessing adults and other Christians baptize babies and children. Some are baptized for the forgiveness of sin and others are considered saved first and baptized later. Some of us baptize for more reasons than we can count.

Regardless of method or belief regarding the conversion model, baptism is the common denominator in every Christian tradition throughout the history of God’s Church. It’s the one thing that unifies all disciples of our Lord Jesus. We are brothers and sisters in Christ with all who are baptized into his name.

In Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he’s proclaiming the total deliverance and restoration of God’s people to a transformed Holy Spirit relationship with God and with one another. The question “What shall we do?” was not primarily focused on a personal decision. Peter was preaching about the whole world being turned upside down. He called those at the feast to more than individual salvation, he called them to the Kingdom rule of God, to a transformed relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And about three-thousand that day took the plunge.

Some Christians, though, obsess about baptism so much they’ve turned away from the essential transforming truths of the sacrament to questions about technicalities and methods. They turn to condemning diatribes against Christians who don’t believe or practice baptism in the same ways they do.

We uphold what we are convinced are the Scriptural and historical beliefs and practices. But we all agree that all Christians are also doing what they sincerely, and in faith, believe is right. The reason we have misunderstandings and differences is not because anybody’s stubborn or willfully rejecting Scripture. Not everybody who believes or practices baptism different than you is living in rebellion against God.

All Christians agree that baptism is a vital part of the Christian faith. The disagreements are about methods and about the specific role baptism plays in the conversion process. Those are hermeneutical issues, not heart issues. It’s about interpretation. The tensions we feel are the result of centuries of tradition and debates over particular Scriptures. We all have to approach these conversations with humility. We have to recognize we, too, are also influenced by our traditions and debates. We’re all open to criticism.

People ask me: How do we treat Christians who don’t share our exact understanding of conversion? They affirm baptism, but they do it differently? Or the believe differently about what happens at baptism? Do we treat them as genuine or as false brothers and sisters?

Well, let me ask you: How should they treat us? Especially if they see our views as legalistic and sectarian?

The question is: How do we all treat each other?

Salvation is not just about forgiveness of sins. That’s not the goal, it’s not the end game. The goal is transformation to the image of God, the end is a holy relationship with God in Christ and with his people. When baptism becomes a legal technical line in the sand, we’ve turned it into something God never intended. We reduce his transforming work into a legal detail, like a person’s eternal destiny hangs or falls on perfectly understanding and obeying this one command exactly right. We exalt the means over the end. We misconstrue the heart of God. We make God into a judge of legal technicalities instead of a God who transforms us through love and grace. God is our Father who lovingly pursues us and is gracious with our mistakes.

We do well to remember it’s always heart over ritual. It’s Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30. Unclean people are eating the Passover in the temple. They hadn’t been properly consecrated. This was a clear violation of God’s Law. But Hezekiah appealed to the grace and mercy of our loving God:

“‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God — the Lord, the God of his fathers — even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.’ And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” ~2 Chronicles 30:18-20

It’s David and his men eating the bread in the tabernacle because they were hungry. It’s Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees call them out: Hey, you’re not doing that right! Technically, this goes against the religious codes. But Jesus points them back to David and his men eating the consecrated bread. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for even needing the example he gave them. If you know what God’s all about, Jesus says, you wouldn’t have even questioned us. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Sacrifice and Sabbath are essential and necessary. They’re not unimportant, they’re not optional. But they’re both subordinate to the big picture principle of mercy and grace. The ritual is not the most important thing. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Rituals serve the ends, the goals, for which God designed them. They were not given to deny mercy to the heart that is seeking him.

What are the greatest commands? Love God and love others. That’s more important than ritual. That’s more important than sacrifice and Sabbath and, yes, even the technicalities of one’s baptism. We have to put things in the proper order — the big picture, Story of God order — or we exalt the details of baptism over the love of God.

We do not draw lines around God’s grace. We do not box in God’s mercy. And we don’t put limits on God’s eternal love and faithfulness.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ with all who have been baptized into his name.



Baptism and Faith

Peter and the apostles are announcing, they’re proclaiming in Acts 2, that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah! This holy one you killed but God has now raised to eternal life, this Jesus, is the bringer of God’s salvation for all people and he is now both Lord and Christ!

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” ~Acts 2:37-38

Forgiveness happens at baptism. So does God’s Holy Spirit taking up residence in your soul. Peter says “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” just like John the Baptist said “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” In both cases, people are being cleansed on the inside and being made holy. People are being prepared for the coming presence of God.

That’s how people are saved: baptism. It’s a critical part of the Christian conversion process. The conversion stories in the New Testament are soaked with baptism. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor — they hear the Good News, they believe it, and they’re baptized.

That’s what we believe and practice regarding baptism. We believe that is the biblical view: baptism is the time and place one is united with the crucified and risen Lord and receives eternal forgiveness of all sin and the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit.

But there’s something else we believe about baptism that we don’t talk about as much or as well. We believe it, we just don’t make it clear. So, let me be very, very clear: Baptism only works by faith in what God through Jesus has done and is doing for the sake of the world.

“You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority… having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” ~Colossians 2:10-13

God made us alive with Christ and forgave our sins when we were buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God. Baptism is faith — faith is baptism. Baptism is not effectual for salvation because we believe in baptism or because of what we believe about baptism or because of how we believe baptism ought to be practiced. It’s got nothing to do with that. Baptism works through our faith in the work of God in Christ. It’s effectual only by faith. Otherwise, it’s just a quick bath; you’re just getting wet.

Baptism is God’s work, not ours, not yours. God is the One doing everything. It’s got nothing to do with my goodness or correctness or the right words being said or the right amount of water being used or how much or how little I know about what’s going on. Baptism is a divine act of pure grace. And anything that undermines that or adds to it is legalism and denies the Gospel of Christ.

Wait. But isn’t baptism itself legalistic? If we’re saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, why is baptism necessary? That’s a human work, right? Surely we’re not saved by human works.

Boy, those are all great questions. Thank you for asking them in that way.

Martin Luther, during the Reformation in the 1500s, gave us the language of saved by grace only through faith in Christ only. He taught and preached that human works have nothing to do with our salvation — it’s 100% faith and 0% works. He was so hard-core about that, he wanted to have the book of James struck from the New Testament. But Luther put baptism in the category of faith, not works. He called faith “the beggar’s hand.” It’s how we receive God’s gifts. And baptism is where we do the receiving. Luther put it in his church catechism in 1529:

“As our would-be wise new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in any of us is of any avail but faith. But faith must have something it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. Thus, faith clings to the water and believes that it is baptism in where there is pure salvation and life.”

Baptism is an expression of faith. It’s only effective through faith. In baptism we die and are raised with Christ, through faith. In baptism, we can’t do anything, we don’t accomplish anything or effect anything. In baptism, we receive everything.



His Presence is the Proof: Part 1

I’ll suggest that the Church’s weekly communion meal is shaped at least as much, if not more so, by the resurrection meals of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday than by the Last Supper in the upper room. It’s the Resurrection Day meals that most inform the Church’s Lord’s Supper and give it its meaning. One of the main reasons is that the disciples first encountered the risen and living Lord at those meals.

The very day he walked out of the grave, Jesus made it a point to be present with his followers at the main evening meal. He showed up at mealtime.

In Mark 16, we’re told “Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating.” They risen Lord is physically present with them at the table. Luke 24 says “Jesus himself stood among them.” They offered him some fish and “he ate it in their presence.” The Gospel of John is describing this same scene when it says “Jesus came and stood among them.”

Jesus is present with his followers at the Sunday meal. He is here. He is with us at the table, eating and drinking with us on the other side of the salvation work he came to do. On the other side of his death and resurrection, Jesus is present with his people at the meal.

And his physical presence provides the proof of God’s promises. It’s the proof the disciples need to know for sure that Jesus really is alive and that God is really doing everything he says he’s going to do.

In John, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Thomas runs his fingers along the Savior’s wounds, he touches Jesus’ scars. Jesus says, “Stop doubting and believe!” And Thomas does: “My Lord and my God!” In Mark, the disciples don’t believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection. Twice it says they did not believe — they didn’t believe Mary and they didn’t believe the two disciples who Jesus in the country. But after the supper with the risen Lord, they do believe. The dinner provided the proof. Everything changed. “And the disciples went out and preached everywhere.”

In Luke 24, the disciples thought the resurrected Lord was a ghost or a spirit. They thought Jesus was still dead. Jesus says, “No, it’s me! Look at my hands and my feet! It is I, myself! Touch me and see! A ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones!”

“Look,” Jesus says, “I’ll prove it. Give me some of that fish.” And he ate it in their presence. And the disciples went from startled and frightened to joy and amazement. Their minds were opened, it says, and they understood everything.

It’s very easy to see why these resurrection meals carry so much weight. The risen Lord is present, he’s actually with us around the table. And it proves everything. This is not a dream or a vision, he is not a ghost or a spirit, this is not group hypnosis or wishful thinking. When Jesus appears on Sunday to eat with his followers, the realities are revealed. In Acts 10, Peter is preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. How do you know it’s real, Peter? Where’s your proof? Peter says, “We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead!”

Yeah, the resurrection meals are loaded.

But the ultimate expression of the deep significance of these Lord’s Day suppers is found in Luke 24:13-35. This is the account of the very first of these resurrection meals, the first meal Jesus shared with his followers the day he walked out of the grave.

I’ll be breaking it down in this space over the next couple of days. In the meantime, you might read the text. You’re already familiar with this great story.



God at Work: With Us

“We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.'” ~2 Corinthians 6:16

In Exodus 24, God has come down to his people on a mountain. He comes to be  near them, to be with them. He’s keeping his covenant promise to live with us, to dwell among us. And you see all three of the Church sacraments in this passage. The people have assembled together in God’s presence. It’s the Day of Assembly. And the people are worshiping. They hear the Word of the Lord and they respond, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do!” They’re making burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and sacrifices to God. The people are being washed by blood. Paul says in 1 Corinthians these people were all baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. But they are certainly being cleansed.

“Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you…’ Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel… They saw God and they ate and drank.” ~Exodus 24:8-11

God comes to his people, he cleanses us, he makes us righteous and whole, and he eats and drinks with us. We see God at the table.

But that’s not enough for our God. It’s not close enough to us. So he makes his dwelling place in the tabernacle in the desert and, later, inside the temple in Jerusalem. But that’s not close enough to us for our Father. So he comes here himself in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He tabernacle with us as one of us.

When Jesus was baptized, Luke tells us “all the people were being baptized.” Matthew says the people came “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to be baptized. And Jesus joins us in the water. He meets us there in our cleansing. God’s presence is there. The dove, the Holy Spirit, the voice of God affirming and commissioning: “You are my child, I am proud of you.”

And Jesus meets us in worship. The Gospels say he went to the synagogue regularly, as was his custom. He went to the temple, faithfully, for the corporate assemblies and festivals. He never missed. And he ate and drank with everybody — rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, sinners and saints.  He ate with Mary and Martha and tax collectors in their own houses. He set up a picnic with 4,000 Gentiles out in the wilderness. He got in trouble because he refused to discriminate. He ate with all of us!

That last night with his closest disciples, around the table, he’s eating with us. “This is my blood of the covenant,” our Lord says.

“I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God… I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” ~Luke 22:15-18

And then on the day of his resurrection, Jesus can’t wait to eat with his disciples. He makes lunch plans with two of them on the road to Emmaus and when Jesus breaks the bread, they “see” him. That evening he shows up where the apostles are, right in the middle of dinner. They’re not sure it’s him — maybe this is a ghost. So Jesus asks for a piece of fish and eats it “in their presence.” Later, when people ask Peter how he knows Jesus is alive, he replies, “Because we ate and drank with him after he was raised from the dead!”

But that’s not enough for our God. He wants to be even closer. He doesn’t want his presence with us to be limited by physical space. So he pours out his Holy Spirit on everybody. By his Spirit, God Almighty takes up residence, he tabernacles, he makes his dwelling place, inside each of us and all of us.

We see all these sacraments on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call… Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:38-47

Look, baptism doesn’t work because we believe all the right things and we say all the right words. Baptism saves us because God is there. God meets us in the water. He forgives us, he cleanses us, he unites with us in baptism. He connects us to the salvation death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord so he can live with us.

And Jesus doesn’t meet us at the table to shame us. It’s not, “Look what I had to do for you — remember it!” It’s his gift to us, this sacred time with him and with one another where God accepts us and affirms us, where he nourishes us and sustains our lives. It’s not, “I had to die for you — be grateful!” It’s, “I love you; I want to eat with you.” It’s an invitation.

And worship doesn’t work because we’ve got it figured out and we’re good at it. Worship works because God is with us and he’s working. His presence is with us. God is speaking to us by his Word. Christ Jesus is eating with us and nurturing us at the table. And the Spirit is interceding for us with words we can’t begin to describe.

Our actions don’t move God to grace; God’s grace moves him to action. These sacraments, these ordinances, are gifts of God’s grace to us. He initiated these things we do together. In baptism and at the table, together with God’s people in holy assembly, God says to us, “We can meet each other here.” That’s his promise: I will meet you here.

He left heaven to give these gifts to us. He came to us and suffered and died for us in order to be close to you. He wants to be near you. He wants to change you and make you whole. He loves you. He wants to eat with you. It’s an invitation.

In baptism and at the table and during the assembly, God promises, “I’m here. You may not see me every time, you may not feel it every time, but I’m here. You may feel far from me, but I am present with you in these special times and places. I am near you. I am cleansing you and nourishing you and changing you.”

This is God’s work in transforming encounter, in the sacraments. Even if you don’t see it or feel it, you can trust it.



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