Stay or go?

To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I don’t know what I will choose.  But I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake. Paul to the Philippians, 1:21-24

I discovered an early case of his dilemma as I read St. Luke’s account of the First Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas.

They had reached Iconium back on the mainland after trekking across Cypress, the island homeland of Barnabas. They had aroused interest speaking to the mixed crowd of Jews and Greek “God fearers” at the Synagogue. That stirred jealousy from the local Jewish leaders. They bad-mouthed Paul and Barnabas to the local Greek citizens. (Acts 14:1-3)

When the same thing had happened in Perga, their last stop before Iconium, Paul and Barnabas quickly moved on. (It was there Paul announced to his fellow Jews that, since they weren’t interested in what he had to say, he and Barnabas would be turning their attention entirely to the Gentiles.) ( Acts 13:46) Luke notes that the two Apostles shook the dust off their feet as they left, the very sign Jesus had authorized. (Matthew 10:14)

Now, facing similar resistance in Iconium, Luke says that Paul and Barnabas chose to stay and keep meeting with the new believers there. Only when local officials threatened to stone the two men did they finally leave. (Acts 14:5, 6)

Stay or go? The question rattled around my brain all night.

Jesus spoke of building homes on rock so they could stand up when wind and floods came against it. (Luke 6:47-48, Matthew 7:24-25) Opposition was expected but the house was supposed to stay put.

As I thought about that, another image came to mind. Jesus told his disciples he was going to make them “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19) I thought, fishermen have to go where the fish are. A fisherman could spend all day throwing his net perfectly. But if he was throwing the net over thorn bushes, he would only tear his net and ruin it. That would be a waste of time. You don’t find fish successfully where they are not. You don’t pick fruit that’s not ripe.

My thoughts turned to the parable Jesus told about sowing seed. (Matthew 13:1-10, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:1-8) For the seed to grow and produce a crop it had to stay put in the ground where it was placed. If there were stones or weeds in the way, they had to go. The gardener-sower didn’t need to stay. He just needed to make sure the seed was well placed and protected — covered — so it could root and grow up. Then the sower could move on.

That is the difference between seed and sower, I thought, between the time you stay in your house and the time you travel. Two different assignments. Two different seasons. The people doing each are together for awhile and then their assignments take them in different directions for awhile. There will be time to catch up with each other’s stories when it’s time to harvest.

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Sermon X 3

St. Luke’s account in the Book of Acts of the first developments of the Church includes summaries of three early sermons delivered to quite different audiences.

The first one is delivered by St. Peter to a curious crowd investigating a commotion in the streets. (Acts 2:14-36) The next (the longest sermon recorded from anyone besides Jesus) is from St. Stephen responding to his hostile opponents. (Acts 7:2-53) The third is from St. Peter speaking to a friendly but foreign home group of Gentiles. (Acts 10:34-43)

All three sermons contain one particular fact from the ministry of Jesus that the Early Church Fathers were to include in all the Creeds that were eventually defined.

Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead.

Peter’s first sermon also used a principle that was used (even if not named) in the others that followed. The principle asserted a connection between what the listeners could already see and know with a metaphoric significance that could only be known if it was pointed out via revelation. Peter summed up the connection in three words:

This is that. (Acts 2:16)

The point of each sermon was to present the metaphor. There were things already obvious to people. There were meanings to those things that could only be known if someone revealed and pointed them out.

This was why Jesus specifically said his followers were to be witnesses, giving their testimonies. They were not expected to prove, convince or transform anyone. That was the task given to the Holy Spirit Who accompanied the witnesses.

And what a relief that is! It is easy to simply say what you saw, what you know happened in your own heart and life. It is easy to point to something for others to look at. It is hard to explain how or why things happened the way they did.

The questions are real. The job of answering all those questions belongs to the One Who is in charge. And that is not us.

The sermon in the Book of Hebrews deals with the division of abilities and responsibilities in our testimony.

Faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. For by this, the elders obtained testimony.  Hebrews 11:1-2

By faith we are able to tell others this is that. It’s the key to good preaching.

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Go on

I’m writing a book of reflections on the narrative histories in the New Testament. Today I was considering fiery Saul on the road to Damascus, full of righteous anger toward those upstart Jews departing the traditions of Moses to follow a new Way.

I didn’t want to wait until the book is finished to share this meditation. It’s appropriate as we prepare to begin a new year.

In the story it’s as if Jesus turns around to speak to a rambunctious child in the back seat of a car. “Hey! What’s going on with the noise back there??” It becomes apparent that Jesus still intends for the trip to continue.

Jesus has no words of condemnation for Saul. He calmly gives Saul instructions to continue on to Damascus. But he will no longer be going there to carry out his own plans. “You will be told what you must do.”

It is the same direction Philip must have heard after the Lord told him to start walking to Gaza.

This instruction also reflects the order of a relationship-based orientation, the new life to which believers are born. We no longer need to have all the answers before we move. It is no longer necessary or adequate to memorize rules and laws of behavior alone, thinking they are all the guidance we need.

It is true that God’s words do not pass away. (Psalm 119:89, Matthew 5:18, 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33) It is good to know and study them.

But since we do not know the details that new days bring forth, we need more than general orientation to proceed with our tasks. (Acts 1:7, James 4:14) We need a Guide, a Mentor, a Counselor Who will instruct us as we encounter each new decision and option. (John 16:13) We need Someone to walk with us. (Hebrews 13:5) When we have Him we need not worry about what to say to adversaries. The words will be given to us when we need them. (Matthew 10:19) We need not fear shadows of death. We are not alone. (Psalm 23:4)

The reassurance is for all of us each day.

You will be told what you must do.

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The Feast of Stephen 2018

I was raised with no attention given to the tradition of honoring great Christian saints on special days. So I was always puzzled at how one alleged “Christmas” carol didn’t talk about Jesus but rather what some obscure king did “on the Feast of Stephen.”

Some years later, while training to become a deacon, my attention to Stephen and his Feast Day after Christmas came into clearer focus for me.

Stephen was the first deacon named in Acts 6. His Greek name, Stephanos, means wreath or crown, implying a reward or honor. His honor was to be the first Christian martyr.

The deacons were called to duty because of a squabble that arose between native Jewish widows and some widows from among Greek Jews who had come to Israel, freed after terms of indentured servitude or slavery. These Jews from other lands had their own Synagogue, called the Synagogue of Libertines, or Freedmen. They had a passionate devotion to living the Jewish life that had earlier been denied them. They took offense at the Christian message that seemed to be devaluing and replacing the practices of Jewish worship. Stephen, working among them, was an easy target for their fears of losing what was precious to them.

In fact, Stephen’s life and death resemble that of Jesus more closely than any other follower whose story is recorded in the Bible. His ministry was a one of humble servant order. His testimony was accompanied by works of power and wonder. His enemies got him arrested by lying about what he did and said. His countenance grew bright with supernatural light. His murder, the first of the newly created era, was one that arose (like both that of Jesus and like that of Able by his brother Cain) from a jealous dispute over how to worship God. And, as he died at the hands of his persecutors, Stephen asked God to forgive them.

I notice with great interest that Stephen’s sermon, the longest of any recorded in the New Testament aside from one by Jesus, recognizes the scope of God working with people outside the familiar home territory of Israel and the Temple, even prior to the Temple’s existence. This was a scope of vision the young Church itself had not yet acted upon, in spite of Jesus’ clear words that their purpose was to include reaching the ends of the earth. This vision, one going beyond the boundaries of parish activity where priests serve, reflects the call and office of deacons today.

Orthodox Church traditions say Stephen’s martyrdom came one year after Pentecost and his body was buried by Gamaliel on his own land. The young Church in Jerusalem scattered as a result of the attack on Stephen, and the location of his grave was lost.

About the time the Empire fell with the sack of Rome in 410 AD, a Christian priest in Jerusalem had a dream that revealed where Stephen’s body was. On December 26, 415 AD, the relics were moved into a new basilica, the Hagia Sion, and the date was proclaimed as a Feast Day for St. Stephen. This church stood for 200 years until Jerusalem was once more besieged and taken. Traces of the foundation were rediscovered by archaeologists in 1899.

When Stephen’s relics were first rediscovered, they were sent to various lands to give Christians an opportunity for veneration. In this way St. Stephen, too, had a chance to participate in proclaiming his testimony beyond Jerusalem.

St. Augustine, reflecting on the fall of Rome, published The City of God in 426 AD. In Book XXII Chapter 8, he gave his own eyewitness to miracles he saw that accompanied St. Stephen’s relics when they were displayed in Alexandria.

To what do these miracles witness, but to this faith which preaches Christ risen in the flesh, and ascended with the same into heaven? For the martyrs themselves were martyrs, that is to say, witnesses of this faith, drawing upon themselves by their testimony the hatred of the world, and conquering the world not by resisting it, but by dying. For this faith they died, and can now ask these benefits from the Lord in whose name they were slain.

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Go and see

This Christmas I noticed a “minor detail” in St. Luke’s account of shepherds the night Jesus was born.

The angel who appeared to them said, “This  shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

The angel did not tell the shepherds to go check it out. But he didn’t have to. They had the natural curiosity itch common to us all.

“Let’s go and see!” they said (verse 15). And they did. What got my attention was the order of the sequence. First they were told and they heard (second hand) a remarkable claim. Then they went to see for themselves. (But notice the limits of what they actually saw. They saw the signs described but were still free to believe whether what the signs pointed to was true or not.)

This is the same order of events when Philip told Nathaniel, “We have found him.” (John 1:45-46) When Nathaniel scoffed, Philip simply said, “Come and see.” It was the same thing Jesus had said to his first followers. (John 1:38-39)

In all these cases, what the inquirers eventually saw was not proof of the claim. They saw only signs. And each one still had a decision whether or not to believe the interpretation and significance of what they saw. That final step remained a step of faith, not sight.

Zacharias stumbled over this point when an angel spoke to him. “How can I be sure of this (i.e., before I act on your words)?” (Luke 1:18) He wanted some tangible proof before believing mere words, even the words of an angel who stood in the very presence of God and who presumably knew not to lie when he spoke to one of God’s holy priests.

Once again today, we get to hear the incredible story. Is there any proof it is true? Is it true like 2 + 2 = 4? Zacharias was struck dumb for nine months for asking for proof before risking the wait until he could see for himself. Even the shepherds, like John, Andrew, and Nathaniel, had to go see and then they only saw signs, hints. Actual conclusions were left up to them. They had been given a free will opportunity to reach one.

As are we.

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The first three

St. Luke, writing of the early days of the young Church (Acts 4 and 5), is the one who gives us the first three new individuals we know by name in this movement.

Barnabas got his affectionate nickname and glowing reputation out of his acts of generosity. The love and attention he was given by the Apostles attracted attention from others. But this attention did not always stir the proper conclusion by them.

Ananias and Sapphira saw only Barnabas’ large gifts, not his large heart. They made the error Jesus corrected among those watching offerings being put in the temple treasury. (Mark 12:41-43, Luke 21:1-3) It was not the size of the gifts that mattered to God. It was the orientation of the hearts. But Ananias and Sapphira wanted the acclaim of being seen giving a large gift (with a discount so it wouldn’t cost them too much). Their attention was on the opinion of people, not that of the Lord.

Later, Barnabas himself would break fellowship with a brother who failed to show generosity and forgiveness that reflected the nature of the Father’s heart. (Acts 15:36-39) Now Peter showed similar discernment.

But in this first example of deceptive hearts among two who claimed to be believers, God Himself took the step of breaking fellowship. This is noteworthy because it also changed the usual pattern that Peter exhibited.

In the past, Peter was impetuous, ready to draw a sword and strike anyone who threatened the ministry of Jesus. This time, under new control of his temper by the Holy Spirit, he only expresses wonder and surprise at the audacity of Ananias’ lie. It is God Who acts to settle the insult.

Peter’s new calm is further shown in his lack of taking any further steps. He does nothing and says nothing until Sapphira shows up looking for her husband.

It can’t be said that Peter traps her. He gave her opportunity to correct and change the story that had been given to him earlier by Ananias. When she chooses to repeat their lie, Peter still does nothing. There is no hint that he now knows what God wants done and can save Him the trouble by going ahead and doing something on his own. This is God’s Church and His honor being violated.

Peter states the sentence he knows has been issued. The Righteous Judge carries it out.

Peter’s conversation reveals the freedom and responsibility of each person to choose how they will respond when options come before our hearts. He asks Ananias a rhetorical question. “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” Clearly, God has allowed this as a test to reveal what Ananias had in his heart.

Barnabas, Ananias, and Sapphira all came to the Apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:37, 5: 2, 10) What they laid down there was different because their hearts were different.

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Deacon decade

Eleven years ago, December 1 also fell on a Saturday.

This was the day of my ordination as a deacon. My parents came with Melanie and me to the service in Orlando and my father signed the diocesan record as one of the official witnesses to my vows.

Since that day, among other things, I served three years on the staff of my home parish, I was a lector for the consecration of a new bishop in my diocese, and my parents both passed away. A stroke forced my retirement from active service in my diaconal ministry four years ago.

I thank you, Lord, for the privilege of serving in Your house.

This fall I have taken three short ebooks I published free and compiled them as a single free book you can read or download here. The first selection is the text of my last sermon given before I was ordained. All three selections are from my “early days” on this stretch of the road.

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