Cleansed by Faith; Saved by Grace

Today’s reading is Acts 15.

The circumcision party was saying, “The Gentiles should be saved the same way we are, by keeping the law.” Peter responds, “Not at all. Rather, we are saved the same way they are, by grace through faith.” And once again we see that Peter’s gospel is exactly the same as Paul’s. This is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10. There is no Petrine Christianity versus Pauline Christianity. There is simply Christianity. Christians are those who believe Jesus (keep in mind everything we have already learned in prior readings about what is entailed by belief). Because they believe in Jesus, they gain access to the saving grace. Whether we are raised as Jews or Gentiles we all have this exact same offer. God wants to give us salvation. Will we believe Him? Will we believe Him enough to follow Him?

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 15.

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On Rejoicing and Weeping–Empathy in Awkward Times

Today’s reading is Acts 12.

When I read about James’s death and Peter’s deliverance, I can’t help but think about John and Andrew. John’s brother died. Andrew’s brother escaped death. Andrew had reason to rejoice. John had reason to weep. Paul will later write that Andrew needs to weep with John and John needs to rejoice with Andrew (see Romans 12:15). That’s awkward. Empathizing with others is tough. Rarely do moments of rejoicing and weeping for others hit us when we are on neutral ground. We may have personal reason for rejoicing, but still need to empathize in the suffering and weeping of others. At the same time, we may have personal reason to weep and mourn, but we need to find the strength to rejoice in the good blessings of others. None of this means, of course, that Andrew had to stifle his joy over Peter. Neither does it mean John had to privatize his mourning for James. Both needed to allow the other to express the emotions they were experiencing. When Andrew saw John mourning, he shouldn’t rebuke him: “Hey man, you’re raining on my parade. Can you go do that somewhere else?” When John saw Andrew rejoicing, he shouldn’t rebuke him: “Brother, you’re being insensitive. Could you tone it down a bit?” On the other hand, when John was mourning, Andrew needed to be ready to offer a shoulder to cry on, and when Andrew was rejoicing, John needed to be ready to lift his voice in praise as well. In the long run, we all have to get used to the fact that I am not the only one stuff is happening to. There is a whole kingdom full of brothers and sisters. It’s not all about me, but we are all about each other. We can be open. We can be candid. We can be supportive. And remember, today is just one moment in a lifetime. There will be another day when the roles are reversed.

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 12.

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No Needy Among Them

Today’s reading is Acts 4.

“There was not a needy person among them…”

If we read this too quickly, we may pass right through this profound statement and miss what is really going on. To us today, this can be a quaint picture of togetherness in the first congregation: “Oh, how sweet! They loved each other and cared for each other.” That, however, is only the surface of what is happening. Luke is calling to mind a passage from the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 15:4, God, describing how He would care for the kingdom of Israel, explained, “But there will be no poor among you.” Then the chapter goes on to explain that the reason there wouldn’t be any poor was not because everyone would own their own home, have their own very productive farm, enjoy lucrative businesses or employment. No, rather, some would be financially blessed and others would not be. However, those who were blessed would share with those who weren’t. In that way, everyone in God’s kingdom would be taken care of, and there would be no needy among them. Regrettably, Israel failed horribly. They were judged not only because they didn’t love God, but because they didn’t love one another. With that in the background, Luke paints the picture of the first congregation. Where the kingdom of Israel failed, Christ’s kingdom succeeded. Those who had the blessings did not horde them as their own, but sold and shared. And among them, the needs of the needy were provided. There were no needy among them. Amazing. How is that working for us today?

Next weeks’s reading is Acts 5.

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Friends Who Pray

Today’s reading is Acts 4.

Can you imagine what it must be like to be arrested and threatened? Once released, what would you do? Go into hiding? Get out of town? Peter and John “went to their friends.” But notice what kind of friends they had. They didn’t go to friends who merely commiserated with them. They didn’t go to friends who decided to take up arms against their enemies. They didn’t go to friends who groused and complained about how bad things were. They went to friends who prayed. Those are the kinds of friends we need to have. Those are the kinds of friends we need to be. And not the kinds of friends who simply promise to pray sometime off in the indeterminate future. Friends who drop everything and pray right then and there. That is a good kind of friend. Don’t you agree?

Tomorrow’s reading is Acts 4.

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Who Wins?

Today’s reading is Luke 19.

Which of the servants won? I mean, obviously the servant who wrapped up his mina in a handkerchief lost. But what about between the other two. Which one won? Both are congratulated by the nobleman/king. Both are awarded cities to rule in the nobleman’s new kingdom. Granted, the 10 mina fellow received more cities and even got the 1 mina man’s mina. But the question seems silly because we understand this wasn’t a competition. Both the 10 mina servant and the 5 mina servant won, but neither of them beat the 1 mina man. Neither did one beat the other. In fact, when I recognize that both of them attributed their success to the mina they were given and not to their own investing prowess, I realize even more how little competition there was between them. Were the mina’s competing? Of course not. This is a problem I often have. I compete. I tend to view everything as a competition. If my wife and I are driving separate cars to the same location, it automatically becomes a race, and I think getting there first says something about my personal value and self-worth. It’s really kind of ridiculous. I find it hard to listen to other preachers because in my mind I’m thinking how I could have done it better or how I could never have done as well as they did or how I would have done it differently. Then I’m wondering if the audience likes the preacher they are hearing now better than they like me and my preaching. I recently read this line in a book:

“Relationships that involve competition may give us a fleeting sense of connection. ‘At least we’re all in this together,’ we may think. But in the end it’s hard to count on a friend who is also an opponent.”*

When I grasp that it is the Master’s mina that is doing the heavy lifting, I can drop the competition. It’s not about me. My job is merely to put the Master’s mina to the best use I can. The Master can decide what kind of return to give it and what kind of fruit to let it bear (just to mix metaphors). In the end, whether the Master’s mina produces 10 minas, 5 minas, or only 1 mina for us, we win. The only time we lose is when we think it is a competition about our ability and decide not to use the Master’s mina.

Tomorrow’s reading is Luke 19.

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Please, Forgive Me

Today’s reading is Luke 17.

Since I missed putting up a message this past Monday, I thought I’d give you a bonus weekend message and wrap up this series on Jesus’s incredibly hard teaching on forgiveness. And, apologies up front. It will be a little longer than usual.

In the earlier messages we focused on the person Jesus focused on, the person who needs to forgive. There is one draw back to that approach. It ignores the person who needs forgiveness. Perhaps I should say, the one who needs to repent. Sadly, that person is often quick to jump on the one from whom they want to receive forgiveness, twist this teaching, weaponize it, and misuse it in an attempt to actually ignore their own sin all while making the person who may be responsible to forgive look like the bad guy. With that in mind, let’s remember some foundational concepts about repentance and forgiveness. First, as I pointed out to the children in yesterday’s post, notice that Jesus uses the phrase “I repent,” not “I’m sorry.” The statement of “I repent” doesn’t mean I simply feel sorry for what I’ve done or for the consequences. It means I’m going to change my behavior. As I say, “I repent,” I should be willing to say what the behavior change is actually going to be. If I don’t actually plan to change my behavior, can’t even name the behavior that needs to be changed, and am unwilling to commit to the new behavior, then I’m not actually repenting, am I? Second,”I repent” is not a magical phrase that automatically obligates forgiveness. That is, even in Jesus’s teaching, the phrase “I repent” is predicated on actual repentance. “If he repents, forgive him.” Jesus’s follow-up statement about the person coming seven times in a day and saying “I repent” is figure of speech called synecdoche. That is, it is using one part of the process to refer to the whole process. It mentions only the spoken promise of repentance to refer to real repentance. While the person who is forgiving is not granted permission from Jesus to withhold forgiveness until repentance is proven by changed behavior throughout even that day, there are some people adept at saying “I repent” while actually demonstrating they don’t repent at all. For instance: “I’m sorry I yelled at you, honey. I won’t do that anymore. But when the house is a mess when I get home, I just can’t help myself. Why do you make me do that?” Let’s face it, that apologizer said some words of repentance (“I won’t do that anymore”), but also demonstrated that he is not repenting at all. He has actually demonstrated he doesn’t believe his action is a sin, but is the natural and only response to his wife’s action. He is actually declaring she is the one in sin. Further, he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, saying he will change the behavior while also saying he will only change his behavior if she changes hers. That is neither an actual apology, a correct confession, or remotely real repentance. Third, when asking for forgiveness, we are asking for mercy. Mercy is never owed. In other words, when I am truly asking for forgiveness, I realize I’m asking for something I have absolutely no permission to demand. I cannot remotely view the person I’m asking as if my mere request for it obligates them to give it. Then it wouldn’t be mercy, would it? It may truly be that the person I’m asking forgiveness from is required by God to forgive me. But that is something they owe God, not something they owe me. God can demand it. He can send messengers to teach them about it. But I don’t ever get to be that messenger. I never get to demand forgiveness. I merely get to ask and hope they will respond. Until they do, I need to humbly remember my sins were the cause of this struggle not their lack of forgiveness. The moment I start acting like someone is obligated to forgive me, I’ve ceased asking for forgiveness. I have actually demonstrated I am not really repenting at all. This leads to our fourth foundational concept. I should read this passage for what it says to me, not what it says to the person on the other side of it. In other words, if I am the one who sinned, I shouldn’t take this passage as a sermon to preach to the person whom I want to forgive me. In like manner, if I am the one who is sinned against, I really shouldn’t take it as a sermon to preach against the one who sinned (remembering, of course, part of the lesson it teaches me is I need to love someone enough to rebuke them). Finally, the fifth foundational concept is that forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences. For instance, God forgave David. However, the child still died, Absalom still rebelled and publicly humiliated David by going into his father’s concubines, and on the list of consequences goes. If I embezzle funds from the business my best friend and I started together, when I repent, he may forgive me. However, he is not obligated to maintain the business with me. If I commit adultery, when I repent, my wife may forgive me. However, she is not obligated to stay married to me. When some of us ask for forgiveness, what we really want is the removal of all consequences, then we want to treat the people through whom those consequences come as if they haven’t obeyed God. Granted, this can get very complex, very quickly. Each forgiver has to wrestle with what is simply natural consequences and what is continued acts of punishment. I can’t provide cut and dried rules for you on that one. But, at this point, the person being forgiven needs to remember foundational concept #3. When I’m being forgiven, I don’t get to make demands about what that looks like. I don’t get to treat others like they are obligated to forgive me in a certain way. After all, as we learned above, forgiveness is mercy. Therefore, it is never owed to me.

Monday’s reading is Luke 18.

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Seven Times in a Day

Today’s reading is Luke 17.

But if my brother sins against me seven times in a day, isn’t that an indication he hasn’t really repented? Perhaps. How many times have you committed the same sin against God and then repented and asked for forgiveness? This goes so against the common sense of our age. After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me seven times in a day… Certainly, this is not Jesus’s permission for any of us to sin repeatedly so long as we say the obligatory “I repent.” It is Jesus’s instruction to drop the rebuke and the punishment when they declare their repentance, even if this is the seventh time today. Neither is the point that on the eighth time they’re out of luck. Rather, the use of seven here is a symbolic idea of completeness. As in the seventh year all debts were completely forgiven no matter how great, every day we forgive the spiritual debts completely even if it is an unlikely seven times in one day. “But this is so unnatural,” we cry. “No one would ever do this.” Even the apostles, hearing this, begged for Jesus to increase their faith. Of course, Jesus’s response was that they didn’t need an increased faith, they needed to actually act based on the faith they had. No doubt, it is unnatural. In fact, we might, in a sense, say it is supernatural. No one who is disconnected from Jesus will ever pull this off. “But what if someone takes advantage of me?” Perhaps we need to remember that no one has ever lost their soul for being taken advantage of, but we may well lose our souls if we refuse to forgive. After all, our prayer is for God to forgive us the way we forgive others.

Monday’s reading is Luke 18.

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