Tag Archives: Acts

Beloved

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The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)

I received an email a couple weeks ago from a young woman asking to be baptized at St. Thomas, the parish I serve in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

She did not grow up in a religious household, but she has pursued deeper and deeper spiritual engagement and is now led to make a mature commitment to Christianity.

In the Daily Office readings this morning, I couldn’t help reflecting on her request as I read about Peter’s vision regarding the Gentiles. When he arrived at Cornelius’ house, he saw that the Holy Spirit had come into their lives, too. He asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing from those who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).

This young woman knows that the Spirit is in her life, and that Spirit is moving her to make a public act of faith.

Jesus himself makes the same public act in this evening’s reading from “the beginning of the good news” according to Mark.

The Spirit is surely already present in the life of the Son of God, just as the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” — Jesus does not need baptism in order to receive the Spirit, but the Spirit moves him to reveal his identity in a public way.

And what is that identity? “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says the voice from heaven; “with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

All of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ share in his identity as Beloved.

I look forward to the day — soon, I expect — when we will welcome another Beloved daughter into the fellowship of Christ’s Body.

Where is your charity directed?

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. (Acts 9:36-41)

About a year after graduating from college (almost 25 years ago now), I got a job at Cathedral Shelter of Chicago, one of the Episcopal Charities of the Diocese of Chicago.

I didn’t know it, but I had walked into the middle of an ongoing dispute between the executive director (I was his assistant) and the board of directors over the future direction of the agency.

The dispute boiled down to whether Cathedral Shelter should emphasize programs like its Christmas Basket distribution, very popular with suburban parishes, or seek state funding to expand its residential halfway house for recovering addicts. In the fallout of the disagreement, my boss was let go (and I went with him, three months after I had been hired).

As you can see from the Cathedral Shelter website, their inpatient addiction treatment program was recognized as “Best of Chicago” from 2008-2011. They continue to offer the popular Christmas Basket program, but it’s listed third among their programs and services.

Peter doesn’t know it, but he’s about to turn the same corner. He will meet Cornelius in tomorrow morning’s reading, and his experience will raise a question of emphasis.

Should the Jewish believers in the Way continue to focus only on themselves and on helping through acts of charity like those exemplified by Dorcas?

Or will the new church have to also embrace the much harder road of reconciling Jew and Gentile, proclaiming more broadly the saving love of Jesus Christ and incorporating people who will stretch and test their capabilities?

It’s not an all-or-nothing choice, but a new emphasis that will take the church in many new directions and shape its mission profoundly.

At the heart of that decision, however, is Peter — the faithful disciple who not only “gave her his hand and helped her up” (Acts 9:41), but also proclaimed “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” (Acts 10:34).

Psalmody and Simony

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Seven times a day do I praise you, *
because of your righteous judgments. 
Great peace have they who love your law; *
for them there is no stumbling block. 
I have hoped for your salvation, O LORD, *
and have fulfilled your commandments. 
I have kept your decrees *
and I have loved them deeply. 
I have kept your commandments and decrees, *
for all my ways are before you. (Psalm 119:164-168)

This verse from Psalm 119 is behind the Benedictine rule of daily prayer in the monasteries — seven times of prayer which since the 6th century or so have been known as Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline.

The Benedictine round of prayer is a workmanlike approach to prayer. Each office is relatively short, all 150 psalms are appointed to be read in the course of every week, and there is only minor variation from day to day, season to season, year to year.

The Daily Office in our Book of Common Prayer definitely springs from that Benedictine tradition. The fruits of the Daily Office are revealed only after long use and steady practice. It takes time for the words of the Psalms and of the rest of Scripture to soak into your mind and heart, time and repetition. I’ve been saying the Daily Office regularly for 20 years now, and I’m only getting started.

Now contrast this with the story appointed for today from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Simon the magician.

Simon was a magician who did deeds of power in Samaria, but when he saw the disciples and their faith he turned to the Lord and was baptized. Apparently, however, he and the other Samaritans who were baptized did not receive the Holy Spirit, so Peter and John came down to lay hands on them. “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 8:18-19).

It’s from this man Simon that we get the word simony, which means making a profit out of sacred things or buying and selling a position in the Church. The word really comes from the Middle Ages, when the wealthy would buy a bishopric or buy a position as abbot for a family member.

The gift of the Spirit is just that, a gift, and you can’t buy it. And the fruits of the Spirit are revealed over time, too — you can’t just leap to the end state.

I’ll bring it back to the Daily Office with an example.

There are several very marvelous iPhone apps that make saying the Daily Office much easier. My favorite is the app (and website) by Forward Movement called Day by Day. Just open the app or the website, click on Daily Prayer, and the office unfolds before you — no fussing with ribbons or bookmarks, no worrying about whether you’ve picked the right collect. Just click and pray.

Here’s the thing, though. The app makes it easy, but you still have to actually pray.

You still have to put in the time in order to give the Word a chance to soak in. So be like Simon — eager for the gift of the Spirit — but don’t be like Simon in his haste to skip over the work.

Unshakable witness

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“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. (Acts 7:56-60)

The Seven — commonly called the first deacons — were appointed by the apostles to ensure that the ministries of care and preaching were extended to the Greek-speaking as well as the Hebrew-speaking Christians (Acts 6). Stephen was not running a soup kitchen; he was preaching the Word. His preaching having landed him in hot water with the council in Jerusalem, he also became the first Christian to die because of his faith.

Stephen is the prototype for those who trust completely in God’s assurance of salvation, who do not even fear death. That unshakable faith is probably one of the reasons that following the naming of the Seven, “the word of God continued to spread, the number of the disciples increased greatly, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Many icons of Stephen show the Church resting in his arms. Stephen saw Jesus face to face, and the Church must forever rest on the unshakable faith of witnesses (martyrs) like him.

 

Who are we to hinder God?

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Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he has done for me.
I called out to him with my mouth,
and his praise was on my tongue.
If I had found evil in my heart,
the Lord would not have heard me;
But in truth God has heard me;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer,
nor withheld his love from me
.
(Psalm 66:14-18)

I think it is easy to miss how astonishing Peter’s rooftop vision in Joppa truly is, and how completely it overturns the Church’s notion of who and what is acceptable to God.

Peter sees a vision of a sheet being lowered before him. It contains all sorts of animals, especially animals that are considered unclean by the Jews according to the Torah.

Peter hears a voice from heaven saying to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 11:7). Over Peter’s protest — he is an observant Jew who follows the dietary laws — the voice says “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:9).

Not only are the animals themselves clean, the act of eating them is also clean.

Peter is being commanded to act in a way that God previously called sinful. He is being commanded to break a law that identifies him as a Jew — that sets him apart from the people around him.

When he is taken to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius the centurion, Peter sees the evidence of the Spirit in the lives of Gentiles. He begins to understand: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17).

This report silenced the objections of the Church at Jerusalem, we read, “and they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18).

Those who do acts that once were forbidden to the Jews, but which now are commanded to Peter, have the repentance that leads to life. Those who were previously set apart by their observance are no longer to be set apart, but share in the same Spirit.

The acts themselves do not separate us; our racial or cultural identity does not separate us. We are all sinful, though we must be careful not to call profane what God has called clean. All who repent share life in Christ and the gift of a new Spirit.

Who are we to hinder God?

Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 102)

When he draws near

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Seek the Lord while he wills to be found;
call upon him when he draws near. (BCP 86)

Little does Saul realize (1 Samuel 9) that while hunting for his father’s lost sheep he will find instead the crown of the king of Israel. The Lord wills to be found, and through his servant Samuel God’s word “will prosper in that for which I sent it.” Saul will be made king, and he will pave the way for David’s reign.

Likewise, Stephen, “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8), seizes the opportunity at his trial before the Council to preach about God’s salvation history being fulfilled in Jesus. God’s word will prosper through Stephen, we will learn in the next couple of days, because his stoning makes an impression on another young man named Saul.

The Lord wills to find Saul, and eventually he will heed the words of Isaiah we read in Canticle 10:

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. (BCP 86)

The renamed Saul (our apostle Paul), becomes a fresh witness to the saving power of God in Christ Jesus, the “word that goes forth from [God’s] mouth.”

The Lord wills to be found in your life, too. Keep an eye out for his presence, and call upon him when he draws near to you.

I’ve got a wild story to tell you

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All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2:1-21)

I read recently that one reason the purple stone in a bishop’s ring is an amethyst is that the Greek word “amethystos” means “not drunk” — an interesting custom apparently derived from this morning’s reading. Don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds good.

“We are not drunk,” says Peter, “but have I got a wild story to tell you!”

As my own diocese continues its search for a new bishop, I wonder if we’ll consider our need for someone to tell the wild story — of the Spirit blowing in our midst and turning everything upside down — as much as we’ll consider our need for someone to maintain our little corner of the institution born on that Pentecost day so long ago.