Sunday, May 16, 2010

Seven Easter
Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to each man according as his work is.

I wonder what would happen if: a church council in a small town gets into a rip-roaring fight over some issue that is happening in the church. Things get so bad that the police are called. They can’t make sense of the whole thing, so they drag the whole group to prison. The police throw them into the cell and leave them there overnight. They even chain the group together, hoping that they would find a way to work things out. An earthquake rattles the earth during the night, and the walls of the prison fall down around the church council members. Everyone is safe, but they are still chained together. What would they do?

Some will interpret the earthquake and the fallen walls as a sign from God that they should leave. “God did this to save us!” Others will say that running would only make matters worse. They believe it would be better to wait for the morning. With the state of many churches in our world today, I can’t imagine them having the same reaction to the events of the day as Paul and his companions in today’s lesson from Acts. Sadly, I’m not even sure that many of them would even face the imprisonment with songs and prayers. I sometimes wonder if we’ll argue and debate our way to the judgment seat of God!

In other words, unity is not something that is visible in the church today. There may be individual churches that do well to work together and do God’s works in the world, but even those churches have broken relationships with other Christians. The church is divided in too many ways. The reasons for division are many, from ridiculous to absurd to unreasonable. We look at our neighbors—other Christians—and think their divisions are unimportant and easily overcome. We encourage them find a way to get along, even if it means giving up the things that matter to us most. Yet, we are unmovable when it comes to our own passions and opinions. Sadly, many of you reading today’s devotional are probably dealing with some sort of division in your churches, whether locally or on a larger scale.

I don’t have any answers, although we may be able to use today’s scriptures to talk about the problems we face. Paul and his companions weren’t thrown in jail for the reason I’ve used in the hypothetical situation above, but the early churches were no more perfect than us today. We should have the advantage because we have two thousand years of tradition, interpretation and God’s Spirit to help us get it right, but the reality is that we are still trying to understand what God is saying to us through the scriptures and creation and one another.

There are battles to fight. There have always been battles to fight. Heresy has a way of working itself into our understanding of God’s grace. This is not true only of Christians. You will see that God’s people from the very beginning have disagreed: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Israel, the judges and the people, Saul and David, the prophets and the kings. The disciples disagreed. Peter and Paul did not agree. The letters to the churches were written because there was division. Conflict has always been a part of the relationship between God’s people because we are fallible human beings. We make mistakes. We refuse to see the other point of view. We have trouble recognizing our faults and admitting our failures. We are not very good at forgiving.

Paul was in prison because he was being persecuted. He was in Macedonia, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but the ministry was not going smoothly. I’m sure the disciples had to constantly deal with hecklers and others interrupting their work. In this case, it was a girl with a spirit that gave her the gift to supernaturally understand matters beyond her ability. She was a slave and her owners financially took advantage of her gift. They were making a fortune by her soothsaying. By this spirit, the girl knew that Paul and Silas were servants of God. She made a nuisance of herself by following the disciples, crying out about them. She was probably not telling her neighbors that they should follow Paul. The spirit within her was speaking the truth—they were servants of the Most High God—however, the terminology she used was not typical of the time or place in which they lived. Perhaps the demon was using it as a form of disrespect. Perhaps her cries were making it difficult for Paul to even speak or maybe her cries were sarcastic and mocking.

Whatever she was doing annoyed Paul that he cast the spirit out of the girl. His action wasn’t purposeful. The healing was not intentional. He responded to the nuisance with frustration and power. I’m not even sure that God intended for that girl to be healed on that day. It was a life-changing moment for her. She was free from the spirit. Although, I have to wonder what happened to her afterwards. She was of no use to her masters and yet still a slave. Did God intend for that spirit to be cast out, and what happened to the girl in the end? We will never know. We do know that God can make good come out of our failures and we can trust that God took care of the girl even if she was rejected by her masters and the community.

The girl’s masters were not happy with the exorcism because they could no longer count on the financial benefits of their slave. She was useless to them. They took Paul and Silas to the authorities and accused them of doing things that were unlawful in Roman society. The crowds agreed, perhaps because the girl was no longer of use to them, either. She had been giving them readings, telling their fortunes, and now they had no one on whom they could rely for such services. They were beaten and thrown into prison. The jailer, to ensure that the prisoners would not escape, put them in the innermost cell and chained their feet.

Can you imagine the trust and faith of these men? They did not worry or complain. They did not fight to be set free. Paul, being a Roman citizen, could have demanded a proper trial, but he allowed them to do what they chose to do. Instead of dwelling in their discomfort, they prayed and sang hymns together. The other prisoners listened to them.

In the middle of their worship, an earthquake hit, causing the prison to fall down around them. Even the chains were let loose. Don’t you think this seems like an act of God? Why did Paul and Silas stay in the prison after they were freed? We might understand Paul and Silas having mercy on the jailer, but why did the other prisoners stay? They weren’t believers; they were lawbreakers who happened to hear the Gospel in prayer and song. Something about God’s grace touched them, and they stayed together even though they had been set free.

It is interesting that in the first story, Paul seems to act outside the intentions of God’s plan, but God made a good thing happen. Then, in the second story, what seems like an intentional act of God is ignored and God made a good thing happen. God is able to use our human frailty and foolishness to do good things in the world.

When the jailer realized that the prisoners were free, he thought to kill himself rather than suffer the humiliation of failure, but Paul cried out in the night, “Stop, we are all here!” The jailer was amazed by their mercy and he asked what he must do to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.” They told them about Jesus and his whole household was saved. He took care of them, washed their wounds and gave them food to eat. The jailer and his house were all baptized.

Now, the jailer’s baptism did more than just save one household. Since the jailer was a man of authority and power, his conversion to Christianity gave the message of Christ that had been brought to Philippi by Paul and Silas a measure of credibility. His conversion led to the conversion of many others in the town and the Church of Philippi grew. This sequence of events began with the offhanded response of Paul to the annoying cries of a servant girl who was possessed by a spirit.

If only such great things would come out of our own failures. Perhaps they do, but we do not notice. We don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency as those in Paul’s day. The early church thought that they would see the completion of Jesus’ words. Though we know that Jesus’ words are as true for us today, we have been waiting a very long time. It doesn’t seem critical. We have known for two thousand years that Jesus is coming, and we have become complacent.

In the book of Revelation, John gives us the final words of Christ and His promise. Jesus says, “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to each man according as his work is.” It is no wonder that the people thought that Jesus’ return was imminent. The language of Jesus and the prophets insisted that the time is short. Jesus is coming! It is no wonder that they went about the business of the church with passion and immediacy. We are assured of the truth of this message because this testimony comes from Jesus Christ: the root and the offspring of David and the bright morning star. It is also no wonder that after two thousand years we have lost that sense of urgency.

Sadly, I think the way they chose to divide the passage from Revelation in the lectionary doesn’t help matters. We read the good parts, the promises, but we ignore the warnings. Jesus says, “Without are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and every one that loveth and maketh a lie.” We’d rather not hear that there are those who will not benefit from the grace of God. We’d rather not know that some will be left outside. We would rather ignore the reality that some will not appreciate the good things that the power and authority of God can do. They benefit from their wicked ways and will never see how God’s mercy can make the world a much better place.

This is why it is so important that we take to heart the prayer of Jesus. He asks God to bless all those who believe, and then turns to those who will believe because of the work we do in His name in the world. It is hard for us to hear Him pray for unity because we know we have failed so badly to be of one mind and one voice. There are many who refuse to believe because they see the differences that divide us; they reject the faith because they see our imperfection.

But does unity mean that we have to agree about everything? While I wish that everyone agreed with me about every aspect of faith, I fully recognize that it is as easy to believe exactly the opposite about so many of the issues that divide us today. Scriptures, pulled out of context, can mean anything we want them to mean. We can prove our doctrine. We can point to God’s hand in our lives, and interpret the signs to mean that God is blessing us. So can those who disagree. Will we ever agree 100% with other Christians about the things that divide us? Even those who walked with Jesus couldn’t agree. How can we expect to do so?

So, what did Jesus mean when He prayed for unity? When Jesus prayed for the unity of the believers, He was praying for them—and us—to be of one mind. That mind is not our own, or the mind of our leaders. That mind is Christ’s. As we have seen over the past few weeks, Jesus set down how we could be unified. We are called to love one another with an active love. In service to our brothers and sisters in Christ, the world will see that we are one and will know that God is the Lord Almighty. They will see our unity and will that God does exist in and through our lives. The sign of God’s power is not a group of people who agree about everything, but that we can love one another even though we disagree. Loving each other is the hard part, especially since we are still sinners, imperfect in our knowledge and in our action.

Our testimony of the Gospel, through which Christ is glorified, is manifested in the unity of believers. We share in the glory of God by witnessing together to the remission of sins that is given to all who believe through the blood Jesus shed on the cross. This is our command, our mission. This is what we are called to do. Jesus will bless those who have taken the forgiveness of sins to those who are dying in their sin. He will share His glory with those who invite the thirsty to partake of the water of life: Jesus.

I do think it is interesting that despite the fact that we so often disagree about so many things, within our local churches and between other Christians, that the one thing that is true about all Christians is that we know we are sinners in need of a savior and that Jesus is the source of our forgiveness. We may do it our own way, understand it differently, perceive it with our own points of view, but we agree we are blessed so that others will hear the Good News and believe.

There seems to be little connection between the stories in today’s Gospel lesson, except for the fact that they happened sequentially. Yet, if Paul had not been annoyed by that servant girl’s cries, the jailer may have never believed in Jesus Christ, and Philippi might have never become a center of Christian faith. It may have not been intended for the girl to stop being a fortune-teller when Paul lashed out at her that day. But, in the end we see that God’s goodness overcomes all types of evil. The spirit was not from God and the girl was being used in a way that was not uplifting to anyone.

The psalmist writes that God is good, and that He loves those who hate evil. We may not like hearing that some will be left outside the gates, but we are reminded to avoid those things which God deems evil. The list is very specific—sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters and liars. The point of the Revelation text is to draw the believer’s attention to that which will come when Jesus returns so that they will be prepared in that day. The day will come when we least expect it, and John’s language is urgent. “Behold, I come quickly.”

John is encouraging his readers to act now. “Don’t wait until tomorrow, for tomorrow may be too late.” We are given the power and authority of God to call those lost in the ways of darkness and evil to faith. We are sent to call the world to repentance, so that they can join us with washed robes in the promise of eternal life. It is our task to invite people into the fellowship of believers so that they, too, will share in the fruit of the tree of life.

We are the witnesses whose words they will hear and by the faith given in the Word turn to God. Though we may have to wait another two thousand years before Jesus returns, there are those today who need to hear the Good News of Jesus. They need to be healed. They need to have their demons cast out. They need to be baptized with water and spirit so that they too can become part of the unity that we have in Christ Jesus. The need is still urgent, the mission still immediate. Jesus is coming. Soon. Let us continue to live in the expectation of the promise, knowing that God will make good come from all we do, even when we seem to fail.

Do we do this for a reward? Do we do this because we think we’ll have some benefit? The psalmist tells us that those who trust in the Lord will be safe from the wicked. Yet, we know from the stories of God’s people, like Paul, that safe doesn’t always mean we’ll escape hard times. Will we have wealth? Will we stay healthy? Will we always be happy? This is not part of the promise. We might be taken to prison. We might suffer. We might have to bear the consequences of our failure. But we will share in His glory and dwell with Him for all eternity. When Christ comes again, He will restore everything as it was created to be. Heaven and earth will be renewed, relationships will be reconciled. We will return to paradise, as God meant us to live. We’ll eat again from the tree of life and walk in the presence of God. This is truly Good News: now is the time to share it.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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