Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Acts 4

    The aftermath of the healing of the crippled man leads to Peter and John's arrest and a hearing before the Sanhedrin Council. The Sanhedrin was the day to day decision making body in Jerusalem. It held its power and authority under the Roman rule and was closely watched and worked under some strict restrictions. Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, uses this an another opportunity to preach the resurrected Christ. I love verse 13: "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus." I love the thought that the only outstanding thing about Peter and John is that they had been companions of Jesus. Shouldn't being a companion of Jesus be the identifying mark of every Christian? Shouldn't the time we spend with Jesus be seen in and through us and, with what one of my former bishops liked to call, "holy boldness." Peter and John are told not to preach but reply to this restriction that they must obey God rather than human rules. This leads to further threats but, at this point, not in violent action against the first Christian leaders.
    Upon returning to the church that has gathered, they prayed. They do not pray for an easier life. They do not pray for comfort in their difficulty. They do not pray to be freed from this confrontation or their troubles. They pray that God might "grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness (29)." This prayer is responded to by God with a house shaking encounter and, true to their prayer, they spoke with even more boldness. Wesley once said give me 100 who hate nothing but sin and love nothing but God and I will change the world. Here in Acts there are 120 (now 3120) who are loving God and hating sin and changing the world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Acts 3

     Following Pentecost (chapter 2), the Apostles begin to perform miracles like their teacher, Jesus. The crippled man at the Beautiful Gate is a great story and punctuates the new spiritual authority of the Apostles. It is also an excellent lesson in Christian ministry. When something great happens (a man born crippled is now healed and is walking and leaping and praising God), Peter and John are very quick to deflect any attention away from themselves and toward Jesus. As Christian leaders we recognize that we do what we do because the Holy Spirit is working through us -- it is not because of some great virtue or power of our own.
     Once again a large crowd gathers to see this new miracle and Peter, once again, takes the opportunity to invite them to a new way of living. Peter, like on Pentecost, begins as an apologist, that is he patiently explains that the power to heal was not inherently in him but is the Holy Spirit working through him. Following the explanation he proceeds to preach and to invite the gathered crowd to turn from their empty ways of living and to turn to the life giving mercy and grace that only Jesus can provide.
    The author of Acts is generally believed to be Luke. Luke was a first century medical doctor and a companion of Paul (he joins the entourage around Acts 16). One of the ways that Luke reveals his training, apart from writing in excellent Greek, is that he uses medical terms that would not have been common usage. Here in Chapter 3:7 Luke uses the medical terms for feet and ankles being strengthened. Sometimes training shows in peculiar ways.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Acts 2

     The Christian movement begins. Following the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples wait for the promised Holy Spirit. With loud noise (like the rush of a mighty wind) and visible manifestations (tongues like fire) and a communications breakthrough (each one heard them speaking in their own native language) the Holy Spirit arrives and fills the 120 gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. A huge crowd gathers to see what all the commotion is about and Peter, now the clear leader of the new movement, stands to deliver his first public sermon.
      Peter quotes Joel and the Psalms to explain what has just happened (and is, apparently, still happening). This is the promised outpouring that Joel prophesied. And, like all good preaching, his sermon turns to Jesus. Peter encourages the people to turn away from the life they were living and to turn toward the way of God found in Jesus. 3000 people did so.
     The end of Chapter 2 gives us a quick insight into the life of the early church. The early church focused on four things: 1) they devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching -- learning the story of Jesus from the eye witnesses is at the heart of the Christian experience; 2) they devoted themselves to fellowship -- the early church lived, worked and supported one another on this journey. Fellowship was more than coffee hour. Fellowship was encouraging, challenging, empowering one another in this new faith; 3) the breaking of bread -- clearly a communion image; and, 4) and to prayer -- this life is not just about information (learning the stories) it is about direct communion with God through Jesus Christ. We also learn that the fellowship and community aspect of the early church was lived in extreme ways: even to the point of setting personal possessions aside so that those in the community who were in need could be properly cared for.
     The final thing I see (47) is that they enjoyed the favor of the community. A church's reputation is an essential element of evangelism. When non Christian people see the church as hypocritical, disconnected, uncaring or judgmental -- our ability to introduce them to our Lord and Savior is critically diminished. I believe when we are doing what God has called us to do -- Love God with all we have, love one another as Jesus loved us and love our neighbors as our selves -- the wider community will see our authenticity and will desire to be a part of who we are and will want to know about this Jesus we proclaim.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Acts 1

     The ten days of waiting. Jesus ascends into heaven (verse 9) after telling his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit. They are told when the Holy Spirit comes they will go on to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. After Jesus is taken from them they wait together for 10 days. I believe there was some time of prayer and I believe there was much conversation. I can only imagine, apart from selecting Judas' replacement, what they talked about. The disciples, the women, Jesus mother and brothers are all together in an Jerusalem upper room. It is speculated by many that it is the same room that was used for the last Supper.
    Paintings often give us wrong pictures of what actually happened. Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting of the last Supper, is an image of  the last supper if Jesus lived in medieval Italy. The actual meal and the layout of the room would have been quite different (the table would have been coffee table height, there would have been no chairs but pillows to recline on, etc.). There seems to be a hang up in some denominations that only men are allowed to lead. They sometimes paint the picture of Jesus and the twelve apostles (all men) as the entire group of early Christ followers. Here in Acts 1 we get a much different picture. There are 120 people present. Chapter 1 of Acts specifically mentions Jesus mother and specifically includes "certain women" and Jesus' brothers (see Matthew 13:55). It is a pretty big and mixed group of men and women and, at this point in the journey, all Jews. Ten days later, in Chapter 2 on the day of Pentecost this same group of Christ followers has gathered. The Holy Spirit falls on all of them, everything that is said about this group is being said of men and women gathered under Jesus order to wait.
    I once heard a sermon about how the only decision the Christ followers make before Pentecost is a total failure. The person preaching this message noted that after chapter 1, Matthias is never mentioned again. The speculation was that this decision, before the coming of the Holy Spirit, was not Spirit led and therefore did not survive or bear fruit. It is a lovely argument made on the dangerous platform of silence. For the record, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Batholomew, James Son of Alpheaus and Simon the Zealot are never mentioned by name in the rest of the New Testament. Their lives and martyrdom are recorded in extra biblical sources of varying degrees of authenticity. One ought not to make speculative statements on what is not said. Jesus didn't say anything about a lot of stuff . . . do we argue that since he did not address it it must be OK? Or should we assume that since he did not address it it is not worth mentioning (rules in place are sufficient to cover). There is a St. Matthias church in my old neighborhood in Syracuse, so at least some people recognize his standing as the replacement Apostle.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Introduction to Acts

     Tomorrow (May 25) we continue our journey through the New Testament by reading the book of Acts. Formally known as "The Acts of the Apostles" is is probably better titled "Some Acts by Some Apostles." Below is the introduction I wrote for Acts for my Ugandan friends:

     Acts is a record of the birth and expansion of the early Christian church. It shows the expansion of the church following the trajectory Jesus gives in Acts 1:8:  Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It also follows the expansion of the movement from a renegade sect within Judaism to an expanding gentile mission. While non-Jews hear the Gospel preached by Jesus (the Centurion, the Syrophoencian woman, the Samaritan Woman, and others) the fledgling Church intentionally reaches out to the Gentiles for the first time with the Gospel in Acts 10. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the Christian movement requires a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) whose decision opens the Christian fellowship to all people. The principle person in Acts is the Apostle Saul/Paul who is introduced in Chapter 8. The majority of the remainder of the book of Acts follows Paul’s missionary journeys and concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome, awaiting an audience with Caesar. Acts was written as a continuation of the Gospel according to Luke and was written at about the same time (late 60’s to AD 90) by the same hand, generally believed to be Luke the beloved physician.     
     The growth and development of the Christian movement is seen against the background of antagonism and opposition from multiple sources. It is opposed by the government, it is opposed by the pagan religious leaders (and those who profit from the existing religious system,) and it is opposed by traditionalist Jewish leaders. Nonetheless, the gospel travels from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

I'll post something about chapter 1 in the morning.

Philippians 4

     Three things jump at me as I read chapter four:
     1. Don't worry. Worry is not about how big your problems are it is about how small you think God is. All we can do is surrender our cares, in prayer and supplication, to God. When we are able to do that we will know a peace beyond all understanding. I don't know about you but I am really good at surrendering issues to God and then snatching them back again. There are seasons where I seem to enjoy reveling in worry and turmoil. This is not a healthy way to live this life. We were created to live life in a love relationship with God. Living into that life is a matter of trust.
     2. Think on these things. The Proverb says that as a person thinks so shall they be. I read somewhere that I am what I eat. I believe fully that I will become like whatever has become the central focus of my life. If I choose to focus on the negatives of life, the fear, the violence, the dehumanizing aspects of modern living I will find myself living in fear and growing angry. If I choose to place security of money or sex or power at the center of my life I will find myself living without peace and far from God. If I choose to think on -- truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasing, and commendable things . . .  if I focus on excellence and what are praise worthy things, I will know a freer life and I will know the peace of God.
    3. Constant striving, constant grasping, constant competing with others is the quintessential dead end of humanity. Paul tells us in 10-14 that he has "learned" to be content in all situations. Notice it wasn't given to him and he was not born with it: it had to be learned. I have to learn to not covet; I have to learn to not grasp and grab and want more and more and more. I have to learn to be content with whatever I have. The way that I learn this is by recognizing that all that I have, all that I am and all that I dream of being is a gift from God. When I recognize that God is my provider I will be able to do all things through Christ who gives me strength (13).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Philippians 3

    I wish I could ingrain Paul's words in 3:12-15 into every heart and mind of everyone I meet. Too many of us are shackled by our past; too many of us are weighed down by past successes and failures, by what has been done to us and by what we have done -- too many of us are wracked by guilt and shame and our histories. Paul reminds the Christ follower that our history ought no longer control us. We are forgiven, adopted children of God. We do not live in the past we live in the present with our eyes and lives focused on the future. Paul says "this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (3:13-14). . ." The difference we could make if we would just shift our gaze from what was to what could be is enormous.
     I think that thinking is at the root of the famous Robert F. Kennedy quote: "Some men see things as they are and say "why." I dream things that never were and say "why not." Instead of lamenting the state of the present world and lamenting the choices and decisions that got us here why not dream of a better world, a Kingdom of God World and strive and strain forward to attain it?
    Think of this on a more personal level. I am working to get healthier. I work out 3-4 times a week. I walk, I have been watching my diet very carefully (for the last 3 weeks now ). I could choose to focus on all of the other times I have started this journey and failed. I could choose to focus on all of the missteps and mistakes I have made in the past. I am pretty sure focusing on past failures would greatly enhance the possibility of a present failure. Instead of wondering why, I could see the prize, the goal, the dream, the vision: the picture of a preferred future and, forgetting what has happened in the past, make every effort to push forward to achieve what I am striving to achieve.
    On the spiritual level this is even more profoundly important. All too often, on this journey in Christ, we strive, we try and we fail and we sit down in the midst of our failure and we stop trying. All too often something doesn't work as planned or is rebuffed by those we were counting on, and instead of checking the connections we stop trying. One of my mentors quipped: life is easy I am either up or getting up. One of my former Bishops used to say "falling flat on your face is just another way of moving forward." I want to try, and try, and try and keep trying until I break through (P.U.S.H. -- pray until something happens -- was a credo we used in college).
     Forget what was, let it go, and remember we were all called to greater things than this. Press on to the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Philippians 2

     This is the "kenosis" chapter of Philippians and is a call to humility. Humility is doing what Jesus did, that is to not use our position and power (whatever it is) for ourselves but to use our position and power in the service of others. Jesus "emptied himself" and did not count his position as "Son of God" as something to be used for his own advantage but took the servant's place and humbled himself for our sake and the salvation of the world.
     Notice in 12 Paul says - "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" - which would seem to to be saying that it is all up to us. Then, in 13, he says "it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." Which seems to be saying that it is all up to God. I love the Bible and St. Paul for these wonderful tensions. What I take this to mean is that I must do everything in my power to live the life that God has called me to live while AT THE SAME TIME recognizing that I am doing nothing for God, in actuality God, though the Holy Spirit, is actually working through me. So, on one level, it is all up to me but on the spiritual plane it is clearly all up to God. To put it another way, God and I are in partnership. God is working through me but the work through me is somewhat dependent on my willingness to allow God to work through me.
     I am touched by how Paul speaks of his companions Timothy and Epaphroditus at the end of the chapter. When we think of the companions that God has placed in our lives, companions and co-workers in bringing the Kingdom of God, we should remind ourselves that they too are gifts from God and a blessing to each of us. Who are the co laborers in your life? I greatly appreciate the staff and leadership team at Christ Church -- my co-laborers in this ministry. They are dedicated hard working Christ followers worthy of our thanks and encouragement.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Philippians 1

      This is an epistle of humility. Humility is not the usual description leveled by St. Paul's opponents. In this letter we read and feel a warm intimacy between Paul and this church. We know from other letters and the book of Acts that Paul had an unusually close relationship with the Philippian church and the Philippian church frequently contributed to Paul's ministry and personal needs.
     "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (21)." These are the words of a man who no longer has to survive. I believe there comes a time in our Christian journey where we let go of the things that normally weigh us down. We surrender the need to compete, to accumulate, or to control and in that surrender we discover a whole new level of grace and peace in Jesus Christ. Paul knows that his future is to be with Jesus. He will be with Jesus when he departs (that is when he dies) and he is with Jesus as he lives and performs his ministry in the here and now. That understanding and attitude is the most liberating of all. If I don't have to survive than I can risk all. If I don't have to survive than I can actually enter dialogue with others. If I don't have to survive I can take the lower place and serve as I was called to serve. . . to live is Christ to die is gain!
     "Only live your life in a manner worth of the gospel of Christ . . ." Avoiding dissolute living not out of legal requirements but because we have a much better use of our time and resources. Avoiding living out our broken behaviors and moving toward holiness and wholeness is living in a manner worthy of the gospel. Remembering that we are here to transform the world and setting out to do what little bit we can . . . is living in a manner worthy of the gospel. Doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God . . . is living in a manner worthy of the gospel. It is a high and gracious calling, indeed, and worthy of our very best.

Introduction to Philippians

     The church at Philippi was founded about AD 50 and was the first church Paul founded on the continent of Europe (see Acts 16:11-40.) The letter was written from prison and is usually grouped with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon as the “prison epistles.” Paul has a deep and cordial relationship with the church at Philippi as can be seen in the warmth of this letter. Philippi is also the only church from which Paul accepted financial support. It is generally dated in the early AD 60’s, but the prison conditions appear harsher than are recorded in Acts, and a good argument can be made for an earlier imprisonment in Ephesus in the mid-AD 50’s. Philippi is in the Greek region of Macedonia and was a region of the Roman Empire where women enjoyed high status. Unlike most of the Empire, where women could not own property, businesses, or hold office, the Philippian women enjoyed a significantly more active role in public and business life. This freedom and emancipation of women is reflected in the life of the church.
      Servant leadership is the calling of all Christians. The “kenosis” passage in chapter 2 (called Kenosis from the Greek “to empty”) stands as the ultimate example of service: Jesus, though God, emptied himself and became a servant. We should all do the same.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Galatians 6

    Paul shows the marvelous paradox that is at the heart of the Christian life. In verse 2 he tells us "bear one another's burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ." However, in verse 5 he says "For all must carry their own loads." At the surface he seems to make completely contradictory statements: how can we bear one another's burdens but only carry our own loads? But when we look at it from a healthy perspective we can see the essential truth. Unless I am carrying my own load -- in the parlance of the airlines "putting on my own oxygen mask first and then help those around me" -- I am not in any position to help another. This is a call to personal maturity and discipleship (a call to "grow up" in the faith). However, essential Christianity is not a solitary faith. It is personal but not private. John Wesley, when talking about Christian community wrote that he knew of "no religion but social religion." That is to say that the Christian faith is meant to be lived out in community. When we "bear one another's burdens" we can more effectively carry our own loads.
    Paul reminds us in 7 that God created a moral universe. We will reap what we sow. The choices and decisions I make today are forming and shaping me into the man I will be tomorrow. What I sow I will reap. If I sow to a wasteful life and life style the consequences of that waste will be realized in the future. If I sow into the Kingdom of God that kingdom becomes more quickly realized. Having said that it is good news for all that God is the giver of grace and healing. There are many times when I sowed badly and found grace. There are many times when I deserved nothing and received blessing. That is grace. In most of those times I had to bear the consequences of my actions but found love, forgiveness and acceptance from God -- all of that amazing grace.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Galatians 5

    External marks don't matter . . . what matters is faith working through love (5:6). The religious observances are not what mark us as Christ follower. We are marked by our relationship with Christ that is lived out in mission and ministry to a lost and hurting world.  This life, the life marked by our relationship with Christ, is fundamentally different for the life we lived before. The previous life (Paul calls it the "life of the flesh" in 16ff) is a life that focuses on my wants, my needs, my self indulgences. It is life that is marked by being at war with all other lives for resources, prestige and status. The life of the flesh is a life that is lived outside the Kingdom of God (21).
     The new life, the life that is faith working through love, is a life that bears fruit. It is significant that in this passage fruit is singular. They are not fruits of the spirit but fruit. What this tells me is that it is a package deal. Like all Greek culture lists the most important one is listed first but that listing is not hierarchical -- it is simple the first of many characteristics. The fruit of the spirit: evidence that we are living the faithful life is a life marked by Love, Joy, Peace, Patience Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control. This fruit is not manufactured it is the result of living life in connection with Jesus. This fruit is never out of season.
    How many times in recent years have we heard self proclaimed Christian speakers and politicians speak with anger, meanness and harshness (not with Love, kindness or gentleness) about their favorite issues? I am deeply concerned about our Christian witness when those calling themselves Christians show no evidence of the fruit of the spirit. We must either speak the truth in love (that is in a Christ like manner) or keep silent until we can.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Galatians 4

     Paul continues his argument that since we were set free we should not return to bondage of any sort: not bondage to "gods who are not God;" not bondage to the legalistic requirements of the religion of the Old Testament. We are not children of Hagar but Children of Sarah.
    In the first part of the chapter, verse 4, Paul writes that we "might receive adoption as children." Most of us might read this "adoption" as lesser standing than the natural children of the family -- that is someone who was added on later. As I understand it (correct me if you know better), under Hebrew law the child by adoption had a greater standing than a child by natural process. The rationale being that the naturally born child was an act of God, and therefore not chosen. However, a child by adoption was a conscious and active choice of the head of the family. Having chosen, one may not change one's mind. A natural born child could, under the law be disowned. A child by adoption may not, under any circumstances, be disowned. In that way the child by adoption had a stronger standing.
    I like being an adopted child of God. It means I wasn't random. I was chosen!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Galatians 3

     Paul continues his discussion explaining that the promise preceded the Law (Abraham called 430 years before Sinai) and therefore being children of the promise outranks keeping the law. He continues by noting that the law was a guardian, put in place like a Parental Guardian to keep us in check until we could enter our inheritance. It is an interesting argument, again, one that does not move us much in the modern world. What follows does:
     We are children of God: Adopted sons and daughters. When we became members of the body of Christ through our baptism we "put on Christ" like a suit of clothing and entered a whole new way of living. Here is the best part: in Christ ALL differences are to disappear. See verse 28: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female: we are all one in Christ. The human divisions of religion (Jew or Greek) race (Jew or Greek) economic status (slave or free) or gender (male or female) are eliminated when we put on Christ. In Christ all human distinctions or power and status and wealth are invalid and we stand as one in Christ. The distinctions in the church are not to be about the human distinctions but only the distinctions of role and function (many gifts one spirit).
    In many church traditions this is evidenced at funerals. The Church provides a cloth -- usually embroidered with the symbols of the Christian faith -- that is placed over a casket. This cloth is called a pall (hence the phrase "pall bearers"). The pall was placed over the casket so that the quality and workmanship of the casket would not be on display in the sanctuary. The church did this as a reminder that in Christ the older distinctions of race, status and gender do not have a place. In Christ we are all one.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Galatians 2

     The question Galatians is addressing is pretty simple: can I earn my way to heaven. Is it possible, through my good behavior and adherence to the rules, to earn God's favor? Is it possible, through my own efforts, to ever be good enough to put God in my debt. The answer of the gospel and the answer from St. Paul is a resounding no. Jesus came to break the bonds of religion. In Bill Hybel's explanation: religion is spelled DO. Religion is about all that I have to DO to make myself acceptable to God. Christianity should be spelled DONE. Our faith is all about what God has already DONE to make us acceptable to him.
    Paul's answer to the long debate with the legal camp is that one cannot ever be good enough. It is not possible to justify one's self through trying to be good enough or through our own efforts. The Christian answer is not try harder, the Christian answer is to surrender -- that is to put your trust in what God has already done through Jesus. Paul puts it this way: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives i me. And the life I now lie in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:19b-20)." To paraphrase: just as Jesus died on the cross so I died to my own belief that I could ever, through my own efforts, save myself. I had to be rescued and that rescue came when I surrendered my life to Jesus and put my whole trust in his death and resurrection for my salvation.
    When I understand this and stop trying to earn brownie points with God I am free. I am free to recognize God's love has been poured out into me. I am free to now live into the kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. I am now free to declare this freedom to others and, together, to begin to build a better world. Imagine.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Galatians 1

     It is helpful to remember that Paul's letters are usually written to answer some very specific questions or to address specific situations in his churches. What is sometimes difficult is figuring out what the original question, accusation, or issue happened to be. In chapter 1 Paul seems to be defending his apostleship against unidentified opponents. There appear to be "false" teachers in the church turning people away from what Paul taught them (6-9). It seems from 10 that Paul is accused of being a "people pleaser". And from 11 to the end of the chapter (and on into chapter 2) there seems to be an issue with some suggesting that Paul was simply teaching "the precepts of humans" and didn't have the "divine" right to teach as he has taught.
    At the heart of the discussion is an issue that no longer matters to the 21st century church. The issue for Paul's churches was whether or not a person had to become fully Jewish (in dress, circumcision and legal details) in order to become Christian. The "judaizer" party -- those arguing that one must comply to these elements -- is apparently at work in Galatia (as they were in Jerusalem and other places). In the modern church this is not a matter of contention, in fact, I would suggest we have gone a little too far from our Hebrew roots. All too often we attempt to read the New Testament (and especially the Gospel) as if it were delivered independent of its history. The key to understanding the life and teachings of Jesus are seen in looking back into the texts and traditions of the old. Now, having said that, it is clear that the "religious" practices are not carried forward. The dietary rules, the clothing, etc. are not carried into the new faith called The Way. And circumcision as a mark of belonging to the family is replaced with the water of baptism. We belong through our relationship with Jesus Christ and are marked with the water of baptism.
    In short, we are free from the rules and restrictions of the old being necessary to please God and are now free to live fully and completely into our new relationship with the Son of God.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Introduction to Galatians

Below is the introduction to Galatians that I wrote for my Uganda friends:


Galatians is called by some the “epistle of freedom.” At issue is the question of whether Christians should observe the Jewish law in order to be saved. Galatia was a huge Roman province that occupied much of what is modern day Turkey. Paul founded churches in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Shortly after Paul’s first visit in this region, other Jewish teachers arrived and taught that non-Jewish converts to Christ must be circumcised and fully observe the Jewish law (virtually become Jews) in order to be saved. Paul argues that no human being can earn God’s gift by trying to live a perfect life. Repentance and faith are all that is needed in order to receive God’s forgiveness and the gift of new life. Galatians is the most passionate and strongly worded of all of Paul’s letters. It was written about AD 57 shortly before the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) that resolved the issue of how much of the Jewish law Christ’s followers must obey. Paul’s passionate plea defines this critical issue for the early Christian movement.  Key Learning: We are free from the requirements of trying to earn our salvation and favor with God. Do not allow the bondage of empty religion to enslave us again.

Revelation 22

     The river of life and the water of life are symbols of eternal life. Remember in John 4 (the story of the Samaritan Woman) that the water of life will spring up from within. The tree of life was present in the Garden of Eden. Theologians consider it a great mercy that God banished Adam and Eve from the garden before they ate of the tree of life. To become eternal beings in their sinful and broken state would have been punishment, indeed. Here the tree of life feeds the city. The tree of life brings health and wellness to the residents of the city. All may partake of it freely and often. All of this symbolizes for us that in the new earth there is no pain, no disease, and we have life everlasting.
    Revelation ends with an epilogue that contains three things: 1) The confirmation of the genuineness of the prophecy (22:6-7, 16, 18-19); the imminence of Jesus second coming (22:7, 12, 20); the warning against idolatry and the invitation to enter the city (22:11, 15, 17). Between the invitation and the conclusion is a final warning to take seriously what John has written and not to change the words of the book. In the end the book is a book of hope and anticipation. Times may seem dire and dark and difficult but justice will prevail, wrongs will be righted, broken will be healed and God's purpose will be accomplished in all of creation.
     The book ends with a reminder that Jesus is coming and, finally with a blessing.

     Tomorrow we will begin Paul's letter to the Galatians -- watch for introduction and chapter 1.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Revelation 21

     And so the end is actually a new beginning. Old corrupt earth is replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. Notice that "the sea is no more". The ancient Hebrews were not sea faring people. The sea in Hebrew literature generally referred to untamed and unrestrained chaos. With the new heaven and new earth there is no place for chaos and so the sea is no more.
    The Bible begins in Genesis with the creation of a garden and the image of Adam and Eve "walking with God in the coolness of the evening breeze." Here in Revelation, when it is all said and done, we are back to a garden and the dwelling of God is with humans. Notice, in the end people don't go to heaven -- heaven comes to us. God wipes tears and eliminates death and mourning and crying and pain in this new city.
     The vision of the new Jerusalem is drawn heavily from the prophet Ezekiel. Notice the "pearly gates (21:21) and the "streets paved with gold". Notice that the gates are the 12 tribes but the foundations are the 12 apostles. Notice the enormous size of the city (1500 x 1500 miles {12,000 stadia}). For a geographically small country like Israel (that is 120 miles by 40 miles) the size of this one city is unthinkably huge. The shape of the city is the shape of the "holy of holies" in the ancient temple in Jerusalem -- it is a perfect cube.
     The key for John's readers is all of the imagery that would be read as unimaginable sense of security. The walls (symbol of protection) are nearly a football field high but more important is the promise that "the gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there." The language describes a city that has no remaining enemies and a populace that will never know fear. It is a city that has no need of a place of worship (there is no temple 21:22) because God is present and the Lamb of God (Jesus) is always present there.
    One other peculiar thing. Mark Twain once commented that God created light before God created the sun, moon and the stars. Twain thought this was unlikely and impossible. What Twain failed to understand is that the light created is the very Glory of God -- so too here in Revelation 21 there is no need for sun or moon -- the glory of God is the light of the city. Notice also that Lamb is the lamp. Remember the lamp stands and the Angels in the first part of Revelation? There is no "guardian angel" for this new Jerusalem. Jesus himself, the Lamb of God, is the lamp for this city.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Revelation 20

  If we were Mayans chapter 20 would be on the winter solstice 2012. This is the end - judgment day. The passage begins with one of the greatest hapaxes in all the bible. A hapax is a principle in biblical studies. It refers to a passage or concept that only appears once and its meaning is unclear. In 1 Corinthians 15 there is a passage about "baptism for the dead". A strange concept that has no explanation in 1 Corinthians 15, no support from any other book of the Bible and it is unclear just what Paul is referring to. This is a hapax. Hapaxes should be studied and pondered but held lightly and it would be unwise to build a theology around them. The concept of the millennium (our word -- Revelation simply says 1000 years) reign of Christ is quite problematic. Why would God end the world, have Christ reign and then let the evil one out again for a while? It is also important  to remember, again, that John is not writing chronologically -- the events of Rev. 20 do not necessarily follow in order the things that have happened in chapter 19.
     Satan's doom was decided before the foundation of the world. The great battle between good and evil is summarized in one simple sentence: fire came down from heaven and consumed them (9b). After which Satan, the false prophet and eventually death and Hades are all thrown "into the lake of fire and sulfur."
     Then comes judgment day. Everyone, great and small, stand before the throne and are judged according "to their works (12)." Those whose name are not found in the "book of life" join the group in the lake of fire. It is a little unnerving to read this and be reminded that God created a moral universe. It is sobering to be reminded in this way that when it is all said and done what I did and how I lived my life will have eternal consequences. As a Christ follower I know that my name is in the "book of life." I believe I will stand face to face with my savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and be asked to give an account of the life, talent, resources, energy, etc. that God has given me. I am occasionally driven by the thought that I have been called to make this life matter for as much as I possibly can and to make as big a difference as I humanly can. What did I do with the gifts God has given me?
    This marks the end of Earth (the end of the world as we know it) and chapters 21/22 will show us the new heaven and the new earth. . .

Monday, May 7, 2012

Revelation 19

     Hallelujah! This is the only place in the New Testament where the word is used. The word is a combination of the Hebrew Hallal (meaning loud exclamation of praise) and Yah (which is a shortened form of God's proper name first given in Exodus 3). It is usually translated Praise the Lord. Curiously, Hallelujah is frequently used in the Psalms. The word is common in Psalms used around Passover (113-118) where the focus on on the punishment of the wicked and the exodus from Egypt.
    We then get a great celebration in heaven that calls the church the "Bride of Christ". However in verse 9 the church is invited to the "marriage supper of the Lamb". So the church is the Bride of Christ AND the invited wedding guests at the feast. John conveys to us the greatest, most joyful, celebration humans can know. The uniting in love. Remember in earlier chapters on the destruction of Babylon that one thing that would be missing was the cry of the bride and bridegroom. The celebration of the joy of marriage, the continuation of life, the moving forward of the generations of humanity is cause for great celebration. We are invited, as Christ followers, to the greatest celebration . . . the celebration of the marriage feast between Christ and the church.
     Now comes the "rider on a white horse". In biblical times when a king came in peace he rode a donkey (see Jesus on Palm Sunday) however, when a King came to conquer he rode a horse. The interesting piece about Jesus on the horse is that though he is "dipped in blood" his army stays clean. I believe this is meant to signify that the battle is his. Christians understand that the war against evil is a war that is already over. God has assigned the victor and it is Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has already attained the final victory and through we may struggle from day to day, week to week, year to year; and though the church may suffer persecution and difficult trials in the meantime -- Jesus has won the victory. Notice also that for all the imagery of battle and war it is the sword out of his mouth (aka the Word of God) that wins the battle.
     The beast (Antichrist = evil) and the false prophet (all false idolatrous religion) are defeated by the word of God and cast into permanent separation from God. What I said in the beginning applies here: remember that the entire book of Revelation can be summed up in two words: "Jesus Wins". That is what is being described here. In the war between good and evil, heaven and hell, the Antichrist and Jesus the King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Jesus wins.