United in Grace

Click here to read Acts 15:1-35.

Unless you…

Believe, belong, accept, perform, think, dress like, etc.

We have all been part of this kind of thinking at some point in our lives. Maybe we have said this to another person to make sure they were the “right material” for the group, the club, the organization. Maybe we have heard these stipulations given to us. What is the first thing that comes to mind when stipulations are placed on others for the sake of making them conform?

Part of the reason we create these “rules” is because we are more comfortable being around people just like us. We would rather have everyone in the group agree with us. No one likes to be called out for being “wrong.” (I know I don’t.) But can we be missing something when we try to force people to conform to a certain way of thinking, to be a certain kind of person?

The early Church had this same kind of issue. There were people who were nervous, including some of the apostles, for Gentiles (non-Jewish people) to become followers of Jesus Christ. After all, the people of the Jewish faith had to go through rigorous training, knowledge, liturgies as part of their faith. Jesus was raised as a Jewish person. So why not make everyone follow the Jewish law and then give them the opportunity to follow and believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior?

Why not? Because grace has something more amazing in store for the world. I want to add, this does not mean, or say, that creating liturgies, ways of learning, or any training to deepen our faith is bad or wrong. It just means that we do not have to go through all of that BEFORE experiencing God’s grace. Throughout scripture, we see the image of God reaching out to the world. God reaching out to the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the dead, the rich, everyone. He makes no qualms about the way people grew up and lived their lives. He met them exactly where they were.

Here’s the kicker to all of this. Just because God meets people where they were/are in life, it doesn’t mean he desires them to keep living that way. It is through His grace, His unmerited favor, that He gives us a new life, a new purpose, a new heart, a new mind. He knows what He created us to be. As for the laws the Jewish people lived by, He did not abolish them; but God did work in the hearts of the Christian leaders, the apostles, to say no one should have any barriers to coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ.

When Jesus died on the cross, the temple curtains were torn in two, the direct path to God was now available to ALL people, not just the High Priests or the Temple Priests. This is great news! You and I get to enter into eternal life, living in the presence of God, here and now. The only barriers to not living into this grace are those we place on ourselves.

No, you and I are not good enough, nor can we do enough to earn God’s grace. That is why His grace is a FREE gift to ALL people. The apostles and early church leaders learned this, and they became united with God in the sharing of His grace in a new way. We are given opportunities to experience and share His love and grace each and everyday.

It Is Clean!

Read Acts 10 here.

“Are these dishes clean or dirty?” This is a common question in our house. Most of the time I can answer with confidence the dishes are clean. But there are sometimes I am not sure because I don’t remember running the dishwasher.

My kids are usually the ones who ask that question. Sometimes they will look to see if the “clean” light is on so they know if they could use a plate, bowl, or cup; other times, they ask as they’re rinsing their dish so they know where or not to put it in the dishwasher.

Knowing what is clean is important so we can be healthy. But, much of the time we tend to take this kind of thinking and apply it to people as well. This is not a new mindset: who is “clean” meaning who is like me that is worthy to be around me. All throughout the history of mankind, people have fought because deep down they felt the other side with inferior to them. As I write this in the morning, I automatically think of the historic feud here in America between the Hatfields and McCoys.

Prejudices and stereotypes have been developed because we still like to be with people like us and want to think others are not worthy to be near us, or us associate with them. This way of thinking about people has caused great harm to many families and causes distrust and hatred.

In the Acts passage today, a non-Jewish person (Gentile) who worshipped God has vision to have the Apostle Peter summoned to talk with him and his family about God. At the same time this was going on (and the servant was on his way to get Peter), Peter was hungry and had his own vision prompted by the Spirit.

This is one of those famous passages people tell a lot (in fact it is told twice in the book of Acts in two consecutive chapters so it might be important to pay attention to). A sheet has come down from heaven and Peter is told to eat the animals more than once. Peter sees there are animals that were forbidden by the Torah to eat. I think he felt like it was a test, so he answered like a good Jewish man would by saying he would not eat the animals that are unclean.

Can you blame Peter for this? All his life he was told to stay away from certain foods and now the Spirit was telling him to eat the animals he wasn’t supposed to.

Now, think about our lives today. How many of us have been told not to go around certain types of people simply because of x, y, z? Often times we’re told it’s because we need to stay safe.  We live in a world that is divided on so many levels and many groups of people will not associate with another group because of underlying prejudices and teachings.

But God told Peter not to call the animals “unclean” after God has called them clean. Just as he awoke from the vision, there was a knock at the door. He was asked to go to Cornelius’ house.

Had Peter not gone, the story would have ended there and we would not have found out anymore. But, instead, he chose to go to see what would happen and what was going on.

Imagine how different the world would be if we all did this same thing? How much division could be brought down by just talking with the other “side.”

Peter found out Cornelius and his family wanted to learn more about God. So Peter told them much more than they anticipated. He told them about Jesus Christ, God made flesh. Lives were changed because of the willingness to break down the barrier between Jewish and Gentile people.

Jesus Christ came for all people. Every person needs to hear the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Do not be surprised if (and when) God calls you to talk with a person you don’t like, flat out hate, or don’t like because of other reasons. You may be the very person God is using to break down barriers to spread his message throughout the world.

We do this because we love God and have had his transforming grace change our lives. Now, we get to go into the world and work with God to change and redeem the world and show what true love really is.

From 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

SENT OUT with Identity

This week, we began a 5 part series in worship called “SENT OUT.” Jesus does not call us to live comfortable lives, be comfortable in our worship, or expect everything to go just right simply because we follow him. He calls us to go out into our communities and out into the world to follow Him, make disciples, show grace; and this all begins by knowing our identity.

If I were to ask you, “Who are you?,” would you be able to answer this without stating what you do or describe your personality or preferences? We live in a culture that wraps our identity up with our job and what we like to do. This is not the basis of our true identity. Our true identity is a child of God, a person who has been made in the image of God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 3, Jesus goes to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. I invite you to read these words now:

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.””
Matthew 3:13-17 NIV

Jesus is on his way to be baptized. He is determined to follow through on this decision. People were coming from all over to be baptized by John the Baptist and repenting to turn their life over to God. Would Jesus have just been another person in the crowd? Would you be able to recognize Him? John recognized Jesus when He went in the water.

When we get baptized, we go with a resolve to publically declare what God has been doing inside us. This is not done lightly and we should not take baptism lightly.

In doing research for this message this week, I came across a story of a baptism in East Malaysia.
When Texas pastor Jim Denison was in college, he served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia. While there he attended a small church. At one of the church’s worship services, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized. During the service, Denison noticed some worn-out luggage leaning against the wall of the church building. He asked the pastor about it. The pastor pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and told Denison, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage.”(Raymond McHenry, Stories for the Soul (Hendrickson, 2001), p. 48; submitted by Steve May, Humboldt, Tennessee)

This teenager knew she would not be welcome back home after being baptized and knew this meant she had a new life to live because she knew God had great plans for her life. How many of us would be willing to do the same thing?

Jesus was not made more into the Son of God after He was baptized; but His identity was confirmed and affirmed by the heavens opening up giving the divine revelation (Ezekiel 1:1, Revelation 4:1), the voice from heaven that proclaimed His identity and showed His authority for the work He was about to enter.

So now we have to ask the question, what does this mean for us today?
We get to be affirmed in our identity as children of God and share this truth to those in our family, and others around us.

We should always approach worship and the presence of God (which is all around us) with determination that God will do a great work within us and through us.

We get to share this message of grace and truth because we know our identity: Child of God made in His image. This means we go into the world and tell the gospel message with confidence. Remember, there are really two types of people in this world: those who know they are God’s children, and those who do not know this.

As we leave the waters of baptism, realize we are in the presence of God, we are changed and should allow God to continually change us. Remember these:
Why the Jordan River? The Israelites crossed the river with Joshua leading them after Moses died. They left their old way of life behind and entered into a new life, one that God desired them to have.
Put on Christ and clothe yourself with Christ (Colossians 3)
It is no longer I who live but Christ in me (Galatians 3:22)
It is God who does the redemptive work. This is where the power in baptism comes from. (1 Corinthians 1)
We have been equipped by the Holy Spirit and have been given gifts for reaching out to this world. (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4)
From the beginning, God called His creation “good” (Genesis 1:26-27), and we get to join in the redemptive work with Him.

Trust that God is doing a great work in you and will do great works through you. Child of God, know who you are and know you have a great purpose and mission for your life. But, just because you decide to follow Jesus Christ, does not mean your life will not be easy or comfortable because we want it to.

Right after Jesus was baptized, He was sent into the wilderness by the Spirit and was tempted by Satan. Because He knew and was confident in His identity and purpose, He was able to withstand the temptations. You and I have this same power over temptations within us if we allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within you and live through you.

Above all else, remember it is God who does incredible works and have given you the identity of Child of God. Stand firm in this identity and go into the world to make disciples for Jesus Christ.

After Hours

OFFICE HOURS Ministry in the Marketplace Part 6

What are your plans after you reach retirement age? Are we only working now so we can play and relax after we retire? I have come to the understanding that we have misguided ourselves when it comes to retirement.

Retirement is not simply quitting work and spending the rest of our life relaxing and doing nothing. This time is actually a gift. This is not the time to think we have “served our part,” or “I’ve done _______ for awhile, it’s time for someone else to do it.”

Growing older is a grand adventure. As we age, hopefully we are learning from our experiences and allowing God’s wisdom to sink into our hearts. I imagine it is easy to say it is time for “new blood” or “someone younger is better.” But this is the opposite of what we need to happen. The scripture focus for this week shows us, we should continue to respect and honor those older than us.

Take some time to read these words:

“Don’t correct an older man, but encourage him like he’s your father; treat younger men like your brothers, treat older women like your mother, and treat younger women like your sisters with appropriate respect. Take care of widows who are truly needy. But if a particular widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to respect their own family and repay their parents, because this pleases God. A widow who is truly needy and all alone puts her hope in God and keeps on going with requests and prayers, night and day. But a widow who tries to live a life of luxury is dead even while she is alive. Teach these things so that the families will be without fault. But if someone doesn’t provide for their own family, and especially for a member of their household, they have denied the faith. They are worse than those who have no faith. Put a widow on the list who is older than 60 years old and who was faithful to her husband. She should have a reputation for doing good: raising children, providing hospitality to strangers, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in distress, and dedicating herself to every kind of good thing.” ~ 1 Timothy 5:1-10 CEB

Notice the first part, “encourage.” So, to complete this series, I would like to encourage two groups of people: those who have retired, and those who have not.

First, to those who have had the opportunity to retire: Thank you for all you have done to pave the way for new generations to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ now and in the future. Your commitment to following him in and outside of your workplace has been an example to us all and we value you. We do not view you as someone who is obsolete. Instead, we value your input, your wisdom, because God has done incredible works in and through you. God is still working and moving in and through you. Embrace this truth and continue to be beacons of light for us all. 

Second, for those working people. You have been given an incredible gift also. You and I have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ at work, at home, in the community, in worship. Take head of this special time. We do not work just so we can retire. We work to make an impact for the Kingdom of God here on earth right here, right now. We are able to do this because of the grace that God has bestowed. Look to the older people. Be sure to encourage and include everyone because you never know who God is using to connect with another person. Value the time you have at work and continue to foster growth in your relationships.

I pray God continues to be known all through your life. At home, in the community, in worship, and even at work.

Praise God for the incredible gift of work!

Amen.

*Note: The concept for this series we first published on http://www.seedbed.com “Sermon Series – Office Hours: Ministry in the Marketplace”