Category: Acts (Page 2 of 10)

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

The Only Thing That Counts

“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” ~Galatians 5:6

There’s only one thing that matters; don’t mess it up. There’s only one thing that’s important; don’t miss it. Our forgiveness, formation, and eternal life, our righteous relationships with God and with all people hang on just one thing; pay attention to it. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Circumcision? Doesn’t count! Uncircumcision? Who cares? In Christ, none of that stuff has any force. It doesn’t exercise any power. It’s got nothing. Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, has all power and all authority. He alone saves. So our faith, focus, and attention is only and always on him.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” ~Romans 8:1-4

God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s purpose on our behalf. Not individual commands — not circumcision, not the Ten Commandments, not purity rituals, not feast schedules — the singular requirement, the whole point of the law is fulfilled for us by Jesus. That’s the whole point of Jesus.

Do we trust that or not?

The perfect Son of God, the only one who’s never broken the law, became sin for us. He became your sin. He took on your sin. He took your transgressions with him to the cross. And when your sin is condemned in him, you become in God’s eyes as if you’ve never sinned. Jesus intervened to do what you can’t do. Christ became what you are so you can become what he is. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice and he has taken care of absolutely everything to set you totally free from sin and death. Now, is your faith in that, or is it in something else? The only thing that counts if faith. That’s the only thing we need to be concerned with. That’s the freedom for which Christ sets us free.

But for some reason, we feel more comfortable in the chains. We have a very difficult time with the only thing that counts. We’ve got a whole list of things that count! We’ve got dozens and dozens of things that count!

It’s not circumcision; it’s acappella. It’s not food laws; it’s weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s not feast days; it’s Wednesday nights. It’s not you must become a Jew; it’s “Is he a member of ‘The Church?'” And it’s baptism by immersion and women’s roles and bishops and kitchens and KJV and crosses in the sanctuary, um, I mean, “auditorium.”

We judge people and we draw lines and label others and decide who we’re calling brothers and sisters and who we’re not when there’s only one thing that counts! We’re paying too much attention and spending too much energy on the things that don’t count!

We are freed from all that. We don’t have to worry about those things. Having the same worship styles and the same church structures and the same name on the building is not how we’re united. Or saved. That’s not what makes us brothers and sisters. We are united in Christ alone! We are made one in Christ alone!

The Bible says there is one body, not just one expression of that body. There is one faith, but not just one expression of that faith. There is one baptism, yes, but not just one expression of that baptism. These are the very things they’re discussing in Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the decision is “We should not make it difficult for the people who are turning to God.”

We spend valuable energy debating worship styles and doctrinal positions and denominational differences, but there’s only one thing that matters. We fuss and divide over methods and traditions and structures and rules, but there’s only one thing that’s important. We get worked up over interpretations and translations and obligations, but only one thing counts: faith expressing itself through love.

That’s true freedom. When we give ourselves completely to the fact that our salvation has already been secured, that there’s nothing left to do, it’s all been done, when we embrace that in faith, then we’re living in freedom. We’re free from our sins and anything that’s ever happened in our pasts. We’re free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights and our honor to serve other people so that walls are torn down and wounds are healed. You’re not anxiously fretting about your standing with God. You’re not looking for physical signs or proof of who’s in and who’s out. You are free to become what God created you to be, what you always wanted to be — you just didn’t know what it was!

And whatever rules there are, whatever obligations remain, we’re free to live above them and through them. We don’t worry about any of that because our faith in Christ has us loving others.

The Gospel truth that you are righteous because Jesus Christ has become for you your righteousness, holiness, and peace compels you to love God and others. It moves you to defend the weak and stand with the accused and speak up for the oppressed. It motivates you to give and forgive. It empowers you to let go and live the way God lives, erring on the side of grace and giving everybody the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever you do, don’t mess it up. It’s the only thing that counts.

Peace,

Allan

Everybody’s a Christian

Another of the things we must stop believing if we are to become more faithful proclaimers of the Good News in our communities is this feeling that Everybody We Know is Already a Christian. We think that everybody we meet in our town — this is especially difficult for us in the Bible Belt South and Southwest — is a Christian. We must stop believing that everybody in our city goes to church. Because they don’t. And we also need to stop believing that people who don’t follow Christ  have all heard the Good News about Jesus and thought it through and made the decision to reject it. That’ s not true, either.

Census research in Randall and Potter Counties here in our Texas panhandle and surveys done recently by our local newspaper reveal that almost 50% of the people in Amarillo do not have a church home. One out of every two people we run into at work or at the store doesn’t go to church.

And there’s an increasing number of people who don’t know very much at all about Jesus. Over the last couple of decades, kids in this country are being raised differently than the ways most of us were raised. And there are lots of men and women in their 20s and 30s who have never heard the Good News. That’s difficult for us to believe — they’ve never heard it! We’ve got to stop believing everybody already has. It shuts down our desire to witness. It tempers the urgency to share the Gospel.

Our culture today is a lot more like the first century of Acts than it is the United States of the 1940s and 1950s. We can learn a lot by reading and re-reading Acts.

In the face of serious opposition, when the culture opposed them, when society ridiculed them, when the government threatened them, the Church did not pray for wisdom or protection or favor with the authorities. They don’t ask God to change any of the circumstances. They pray for two things. They ask for strength to obey, to have the nerve and guts and faith to continue to speak boldly about the Christ. And they ask for God to act in his mighty power, to do what he needs to do to advance the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” ~Acts 4:29

The prayer is not about numbers or relevancy or new laws or positive press. The concern of the Church is for the Word to go forth and for Christ Jesus to be glorified. To speak more boldly about the Good News in a culture that isn’t Christian and to praise God when he does amazing things.

Peace,

Allan

Stop Believing!

We know what we believe about God’s salvation work in Jesus. We believe our Lord Jesus is raised from the dead and is reigning today at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We believe that God’s salvation comes to us by no other name. We’re very clear on the things we believe. We ask for an increased faith to believe even more what we know is right and true about our Lord’s mission to save the world. But some of us have stopped talking.

We haven’t stopped believing, we’ve just stopped talking.

I wonder if there are things we need to stop believing in order to start talking again.

Are there things in our heads and our hearts that we believe to be true that really aren’t? And do those false things we believe contribute to a church culture where we don’t talk about Jesus with others the way we used to? The things we hear and the things we pass on that aren’t true — we start to believe those things the more we hear them — have the potential to compromise or completely shut down our witness. What are the things we need to stop believing so we can be more effective proclaimers in our communities?

I’ve come up with five things I believe faithful Christians need to stop believing. We’ll take one every day this week.

The first non-truth we have a tendency to believe is that God’s Church is in decline and it’s getting smaller and weaker.

We hear it, we read about it,  and we repeat it. But it’s simply not true. Yes, the church in America is declining in membership and attendance. The Churches of Christ in this country are losing numbers at an alarming rate. It’s undeniable. But I wouldn’t call it smaller and weaker; I’d call it smarter and stronger.

Think about this. The culture in this country has changed. Fifty years ago you had to be a regular church-going Christian to be viewed as a good citizen. Being a Christian and being an active member of a church helped you in business, it helped you develop contacts, it raised your statue in the community and improved your reputation. Church is where you met people and built relationships that were beneficial to you. The American society propped up the church. Gas stations and retail stores were all closed on Sundays. Teachers never assigned homework on Wednesday nights. And there weren’t any school functions or practices or games on the first day of the week. The culture encouraged church. If you didn’t go to church fifty years ago it was weird, it raised questions: Why doesn’t he go to church? So most everybody did.

Maybe you’ve noticed. That has changed.

Our culture today doesn’t care if anybody goes to church or not. It doesn’t matter anymore in our society. It doesn’t hurt your business, it doesn’t impact your social standing, it doesn’t bother anybody if you don’t go to church. In fact, we’ve moved so far the other way, it’s kinda weird if you do regularly go to church: I think that guy’s kind of a fanatic.

The result of this is, yes, fewer people are going to church. But here’s the way I see it: The nominal Christians, the barely Christians, the ones who were only in church because the society pushed it — they’ve left. But the truly committed Christians, the all-in followers of Jesus, are more committed to Christ and his cause than ever before. As the numbers go down, the dedicated disciples of Jesus are gearing up. They’re giving more, they’re volunteering and serving more. The church is not getting smaller and weaker, the church is getting leaner and meaner, smarter and stronger, better equipped and prepared to what we are ordained by our God to do.

Look at our situation here at Central in Amarillo. This is a 110-year-old church and our weekly attendance is smaller right now than it’s been in 60-70 years. We’re half the size we were just 40 years ago. And we notice it. We walk into our worship center on Sunday mornings and we feel it. We wring our hands and exchange worried looks with other members: What’s happening? What’s wrong? What’s going on?

Well, here’s what’s going on at Central: This church is regularly today giving more money to the causes of Christ than it’s ever given before in its history; by God’s grace we’re doing more Gospel ministry in the city of Amarillo and more Christian mission all around the world than we’ve ever done in Central’s history. Ever! How is this happening? The culture has shifted. The take-it-or-leave-it Christians are leaving it and the truly dedicated disciples are doubling down. That’s the only way to explain it. And I think it’s actually pretty exciting.

It’s especially thrilling when we remember that this is historically God’s preferred method.

Gideon brought 32-thousand men into the presence of God and said, “We’re ready to fight the Midianites!” Our God wouldn’t even give Gideon the battle plans until he had whittled that number down to 300.

It was young shepherd boy David, not super tall King Saul who took down Goliath.

God told his kings not to count the numbers of people, not to measure the size of the armies. When the kings counted heads, they got in trouble with God.

God’s preferred method is to use five little rolls and a couple of fish to feed five thousand. He likes to use a tiny mustard seed to provide shelter for all the birds of the air. When God’s Church is exploding onto the scene in Acts, the leaders of the faith are described as “unschooled and ordinary men.”

The Church is not in decline. God is weeding us, he’s sifting us, he’s pruning us, he’s getting us ready for something truly spectacular in his Kingdom. We’re not getting smaller, we’re getting leaner and meaner for the mission.

Peace,

Allan

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.

“What?”
“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?

Peace,

Allan

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