Tag Archives: Acts

In the temple and house to house

[The council] were convinced by Gamaliel, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and [house to house] they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:39-42)

It seems to me that this passage is a pretty convincing place to locate the beginning of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Every day …

… in the temple and house to house …

… those who were considered worthy
to suffer for the name …

… did not cease to teach and proclaim.

The apostles were flogged, and they rejoiced.

They were ordered not to speak, and they did not cease to teach and proclaim.

Here’s an example of their proclamation, a song we still sing at Morning Prayer more than 2,000 years later:

A Song to the Lamb Dignus es
Revelation 4:11, 5:9-10, 13

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.

And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.

As we continue reading the next few chapters of Acts, we will see the apostles appointing seven deacons to serve the needs of the Greek-speaking believers as well as the Jewish believers. The song they sing is for “every family, language, people, and nation” — for the whole kingdom of priests.

The deacon Stephen’s preaching — not his table service — gets him stoned to death. He is the next one to be “counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 7:60).

The violence against all of the believers is mounting.

Saul begins to follow the church, persecuting the believers. As they are “every day in the temple and house to house,” so he is “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women” (Acts 8:3).

But “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4). Eventually even Saul is “counted worthy to suffer for the name,” and his conversion leads him to travel widely, entering house after house again, only this time to form churches.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, Christ the Lamb.

Worthy are you, when you suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. The church thrived and grew when the going got tough. Even today, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian).

Mideast Egypt The Christian Vote

A blood-spattered poster of Jesus Christ is seen inside the the Coptic Christian Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria (CNS).

Worthy, too, are the priesthood of all believers, those who sing the Lord’s song “every day in the temple and house to house.”

Worthy are you, when you proclaim the good news of Christ not just at church, but also as you go about your daily life.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

12 Steps of Christmas | St. Stephen, deacon and martyr

Step Two – “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, can be found here.

My heart trusts in him, and I have been helped

December 26, on the Western Christian calendar, is the feast of St. Stephen, one of the first martyrs who witnessed to his faith in Jesus as Lord even in the face of death by stoning.

Stephen’s story, told in Acts 6-7, is about trusting in a new revelation of God. In this case, the revelation is that Jesus himself was God and was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

His witness, the sermon Stephen preached indicting the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders of Jerusalem) for opposing the Holy Spirit, is a reinterpretation of Jewish history that they cannot stand for.

Stephen’s trust in the Son of God and in this new revelation is so complete that he is not afraid to die. He is filled with a power greater than himself.

Higher Power

Many people I have met in AA meetings talk about how difficult it was for them to accomplish  Step Two.

They struggled to believe in, let alone acknowledge the existence of “a Power greater than ourselves” — which (with a capital P, of course) would seem to refer to the God of Christianity, especially of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches so prevalent where I live.

I did not have that particular struggle. As a person brought up in the church and serving for 20 years as an ordained minister, I have always trusted in the existence of God.

But I’m not sure I ever trusted God to “restore me to sanity.”

What really struck me about Step Two was its suggestion that the AA group itself might serve as one’s “Higher Power” as far as recovery goes. The point is, the group has wisdom that I don’t. In that sense, they are greater than I am.

I do well to listen to their counsel, to their stories of “experience, strength, and hope,” to their trust in a Higher Power, as I deal with my own issues.

The wisdom of tradition

There are clear ties here, in my mind, to the traditions of the church and the humility that we might be called to exercise in the face of 2,000 years of the lived experience of the saints.

St. Stephen, the first to demonstrate such a powerful faith, is often pictured holding up a church. Perhaps we are sustained, held up, by the faith of those who came before us.

perseverar-em-Jesus-3We are not the first believers to struggle in our faith, or to suffer because of our belief, or to doubt the presence of God in our lives. We are not the first to face ridicule, or to feel dryness in our prayers, or to question the dogmas that are being pushed on us.

Humility simply means admitting that we might have something to learn from believers who have wisdom that we don’t.

Putting away all earthly anxieties

But more is needed than just learning from the AA group or the church’s traditions if our Higher Power is to  “restore us to sanity.”

What shines through the stories of recovery I have heard is transformed lives. People talk about a whole new way of living that is not based on fear or addiction, but on gratitude and sobriety.

What is even more remarkable is the way people long in recovery maintain their poise even in the face of repeated trials and the need to “keep working the program.” Some even make the astonishing claim that hitting rock bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them.

In the face of struggles and doubts, people in the group “completely give themselves to this simple program” (Big Book 58) which is laid out in the remaining Steps.

It may not be quite the same as facing death by stoning, but practicing recovery — especially coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves will restore us to sanity — seems to call forth from people a willingness to face difficult situations and people head on but without anxiety.

May we, like Stephen, give ourselves completely to this Power greater than ourselves in trust that we will be restored.

Collect of the Day

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

A Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My ways are not your ways. Gosh!

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; *
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways *
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, *
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. (BCP 86)

Today, we see in the lessons, canticles, and collects of Morning Prayer three examples of the upside down ways of God.

It was only a question … gosh!

In the OT reading we have the beginning of the story of David and Goliath, which we may remember from childhood as the victory of the small over the great. David with his slingshot (and his faith) triumphs over the strength and weapons of the giant Philistine.

David, the youngest brother, is only supposed to be bringing food to his older brothers, but he hears around the camp that the king will reward whoever kills Goliath.

His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David. He said, “Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” David said, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (1 Samuel 17:28-29)

But there’s also a subversive political strain to the story, since the shepherd boy David is being groomed by God to supplant the king of Israel. The anointing of God is being taken away from Saul and giving to David instead.

God shows no partiality

We see that same subversive streak in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ– he is Lord of all. … While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:34-36; 44-47)

The anointing of the Holy Spirit, which the disciples had assumed was an additional gift to the Chosen People — the Jews who believed in Jesus as Lord — is now falling on anyone who hears the good news.

Even Gentiles are receiving God’s spirit. What next?

You stretched out your arms of love

What’s next for the disciples is the conviction that in Jesus, God was acting to save all people.

Paul’s letters crisscross the Mediterranean world, reminding new Christians that grace, not law, is their guide and salvation …

The Gospel writers begin to compile their chronicles of Jesus’ life and teaching, four accounts that together draw out just how upside down his message was, for those with ears to hear.

John, writing later than the others, even recounts Jesus saying “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them in also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

The religious rules and the political order both turn upside down in the face of God’s grace and truth, seen most clearly in Jesus’ last gift of love.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

For freedom Christ has set us free | St. Peter and St. Paul

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David. (BCP 92)

God has come to his people and set them free

The Spirit includes in our fellowship people we normally wouldn’t include, and the apostles proclaim inclusion and freedom.

Peter has a vision from God that leads him to understand God is doing a new thing, inviting him to move beyond the familiar boundaries of Jewish law and practice.

In response to that vision, he follows God’s leading — “the Spirit told me to go with them, and to make no distinction between them and us” — and goes to the house in Caesarea where some Gentiles are gathered.

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:15-17)

Peter’s story convinces the leaders of the Jerusalem church. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18).

God has included in our fellowship people we were once commanded to avoid, and the leaders of the church recognize that God is doing a new thing.

It’s a good start, but it doesn’t last very long.

People don’t want the freedom God offers

It’s no accident that the lectionary appoints the passage from Ezekiel for Morning Prayer on this Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Like Peter and Paul themselves, the early church struggles between law and grace, and in fact we still struggle with it to this day. We refuse to hear the message of inclusion and freedom.

Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them (Ezekiel 2:3-5).

It is, however, a lovely coincidence that the lesson appointed for this Monday morning (Proper 8) in the normal lectionary tells exactly the same story of rebelliousness.

Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah and said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’” (1 Samuel 10:17-19)

We do not want the freedom God intends for us, the special covenant relationship with God that saves us. We want what everyone else has.

So Samuel gives us Saul, whom he has already warned us about and (with God’s grudging permission) anointed as our king.

But (what a bunch of jerks!) we don’t even want the king that we chose instead of God’s freedom.

Then Samuel sent all the people back to their homes. Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went warriors whose hearts God had touched. But some worthless fellows said, ‘How can this man save us?’ They despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace. (1 Samuel 10:25-27)

Can this man save us? Of course not, as Samuel has been trying to tell us.

For freedom Christ has set us free

Our apostles (whom we call bishops) still have to beat their heads against our stubbornness.

Like Paul before them, they have to keep reminding us not to slip backward into law, into exclusion, into wanting what everyone else has — a secular king who will enslave and exploit them.

We need our apostles to remind us to keep pressing forward into inclusion and freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

The Lord is near; be patient and hope in him

I am at the annual NAMI Wisconsin conference, hearing from speakers about mental illness and the peer-to-peer support which is the hallmark of NAMI’s recovery approach. Helping people experience recovery — living well with mental illness — builds hope.

One of this morning’s psalms resonates with my own experience of recovery.

The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.
The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.
The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.
The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; *
he hears their cry and helps them.
The LORD preserves all those who love him, *
but he destroys all the wicked.
My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD; *
let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever. (Psalm 145:14-22)

“The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down … the Lord is near to those who call upon him.” These assurances build hope in us as we share our stories of God’s faithfulness in our own times of trouble.

The writer Jesus son of Sirach (whose book the church calls Ecclesiasticus), describes the internal attitude I try to have as I work my own recovery each day.

Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him. (Ecclus. 2:4-6)

The slogans of recovery, like “One Day at a Time,” and the teachings of our Christian faith echo Sirach’s timeless human wisdom.

Accept whatever befalls you. What is, is. Accept that things are the way they are without becoming “restless, irritable, and discontented.”

Be patient. One of our speakers yesterday suggested that patience is a fruit of practicing mindfulness in every situation, and that mindfulness is really being present to what is actually happening.

Make your ways straight. At the men’s breakfast and Bible study I attend on Thursdays, we spoke this week about how our lives are to be lived in response to God’s grace. We do not earn grace; but in gratitude we make changes in order to stay in God’s way.

The short reading from the Acts of the Apostles exemplifies the simple faithfulness that is to characterize our new life — whether it’s life in recovery, life in Christ, or both.

Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 12:25–13:3)

Notice how John, whose other name was Mark, is simply present with Barnabas and Saul. Notice how he doesn’t figure in the action at Antioch — it’s Barnabas and Saul who are made apostles.

Mark must have been practicing mindfulness throughout that time, though, paying attention to the new life in Christ. Eventually, his insights bore fruit in the gospel account that bears his name.

The Lord is near to those who call upon him, who call upon him faithfully.

In times of humiliation, be patient.

Make your ways straight, and hope in him.

Collect for St. Mark

Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God: We thank you for this witness, and pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The password that opens the heavens

Yesterday, several members of our deanery went to the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin to see an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten and hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey since the invention of the printing press. It represents 15 years of work by a team of calligraphers and artists under Donald Jackson in Wales and a Committee on Illumination and Text at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The exhibit at the Chazen Museum includes actual pages from The Saint John’s Bible and a display of the calligraphers’ tools, including hand-cut quills and tools for applying gold leaf. There is a video documentary about the process of creating the Bible, and an example of a full-size “Heritage Edition” bound in oak boards and rich leather.

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One of the most arresting pages in The Saint John’s Bible is the frontispiece to the Gospel of John. I own the reproduction volume of the Gospels and Acts, so the featured image for this post is a closeup of that page.

Donald Jackson uses gold leaf to signify God, and the figure of the Word made flesh shines brightly from the cosmic background (based on images from the Hubble telescope) behind him. The art underscores the way John connects the coming of Christ to the account of creation in Genesis.

Verses from Paul’s hymn in the letter to the Colossians appear to the left of the figure:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers —
all things have been created through him and for him (Col. 1:15-16)

The keyhole along the left edge of the image reminds me of the sermon I heard in Munich on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. We attended the Eucharist with my wife’s Tante Barbara at her neighborhood church, Maria Trost.

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

The priest spoke of this opening passage of John’s gospel, describing Jesus as not just the “word” of God, but as the “password” whose coming opens the heavens to human beings.

Stephen, he went on to say, was one of the first who knew the password, who exclaimed as he was being stoned, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).

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In the introduction to his companion book Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible, Michael Patella OSB, chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text, writes:

Readers should not be surprised if they find that their engagement with The Saint John’s Bible opens their imaginations, hearts, souls, and intellects to new ways of conceiving God. In addition, they may also find themselves entering a deeper relationship with God (xiv).

The Saint John’s Bible is a beautiful, sacramental expression — in ink and gold leaf, vellum and leather, word and image — of the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus,” as today’s Epistle reading suggests.

May meditating on its words and images, and on the Word made flesh whom it reveals, open the heavens to you, too.

Them I know … but who are you?

St. Paul and Jesus

St. Paul and Jesus

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (Acts 19:13-15)

Who are you?

Would you be recognized as a follower of Jesus (not just by evil spirits, but by anybody you meet)?

When you talk about your faith, are you talking about an abstraction or are you talking about someone you know?

You don’t have to be perfect, that’s for sure — just look at David, featured in our Old Testament reading this morning in the act of committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed.

However, you do have to be known by God, and you have to do what God’s followers do — repent.

Knowing God and being known, just like any friendship, means putting in the time. That’s largely what we are doing when we pray the Daily Offices — spending face time with God.

Coming face to face with the living God, especially as we meet him in Jesus, highlights our sinfulness and leads us to want to change.

David will be confronted by Nathan, the prophet of God, in tomorrow morning’s reading, and he will repent of his sin.

Saul, whose early ministry was to persecute Christians, repented after he began to know the risen Jesus. In a complete turnaround (which is basically what repenting means), his new ministry under the new name of Paul was to help establish new churches.

Who are you?

Are you a friend of God?

Are you putting in the time and making the changes that your friendship requires?