Monday, September 22, 2014

The Generosity of the Vineyard Owner

20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius [1] a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ [2] 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
(Matthew 20:1-16 (ESV)
“You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” Right, the word has the connotation of righteous, and just. It’s a peculiar point in the parable of the vineyard. The hiring practices of this man are strange. In fact, the man doesn’t seem to be hiring anyone at all. It is as if he doesn’t care about the work, near as much as he cares about these people looking for work. He tells them to go into the vineyard, I’ll give you whatever is right. So they went. They don’t ask about payment, they just go, taking the man at his word. They trust him. Same with all the people he hires after.
But the first people, the ones up in the town square ready to work at six A.M. He agrees with them for a denarius. I mean, it’s fun to speculate who these different groups are, what’s motivating them.  The bills that need to be paid, the mouths that need to be fed. Perhaps they are saving to buy their wives a special present for an upcoming anniversary. Maybe they are hoping to earn enough to buy a lamb to sacrifice in the temple as a dedication for a new born son, as Mary and Joseph did with Jesus, being poor and settled on turtle doves instead. A sacrifice foreshadowing his own death, the sacrifice with which he gives you righteousness, that which is right.
I mean, why is it that you work? What are your motivations? How much more real have those become when you were out of work? When the bills start coming in and you start wondering what you can afford or not afford. And sleepless nights tossing and turning, wondering when you might find a job to help get you out of the hole. Then you begin to realize what a privilege it is to work, especially if you love your job. The peace of mind a paycheck offers helps to keep your sanity in a world where it isn’t hard to see others with no job, poor and destitute.
A denarius, today would be a couple hundred dollars. The kind of pay that puts a smile on a teenager’s face as he contemplates Friday night with friends, or perhaps dinner with a date. Not bad pay for an adult either if it is steady. The kind of pay that keeps a man sane.
And perhaps now we see what a privilege it was for these men to be working, to be hired so early for a denarius. One wonders what the others thought. They showed up late to the market place. The chances of being hired slim, those looking for labor show up in the morning and look for those eager to work, disciplined to take advantage of the early morning day light, get things done before the heat of the sun slows the progress. When the vineyard owner comes looking for reinforcements at the third hour, they washed with relief. Any pay is better than no pay. At least they don’t have to show up in the empty handed at the end of the day. They understand what they are being given with a sigh of relief when the vineyard owner tells them, “Whatever is right I will give to you.” Those hired at the eleventh hour go to work without hesitation, glad to have the work, trusting that what is right will be given to them.

“What is right I will give you.” The work, the pay, the peace of mind, all was gift, and they went to work with joy. This is the kingdom of God. All of it gift. None of it deserved. We are given the work and with it righteousness. We are benefactors of the Lord’s generosity, the forgiveness of sins. The work itself given to us as gift, from a generous, loving and benevolent employer, and the righteousness he gives is more than we could ever earn, the righteousness of his Son, who died to give you his inheritance, crucified to make you coheirs of heaven. Such is the generosity of God. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Herod Kills James

12:1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12:1-5 (ESV)
Agrippa I, known as Herod to the Jewish people over whom he was king. This is the Grandson of Herod the Great who built so many charming palaces and cities in Judea, but also slaughtered the innocents while trying to murder Jesus. Agrippa had been raised in the house of Caesar since he was four, and was friends with Claudius. He was a Hellenist at heart, but couldn’t be seen as one among the Jews, where like his grandfather he tried to appease the Pharisees, while carrying on his life like any gentile King. This is what the dynasty was known for. In public they portrayed piety, in private the perverse. Which is to say, they were in many ways like all the rest of us who hide our sins and try to put on a better show in public. Of course, they were on a grander scale and were often led to do things because of that that is hard to comprehend. Agrippa, though, he was raised in Caesars house, as a son of the Roman Emperor. It’s hard to imagine the licentiousness with which this man grew up. He was known to put on gladiator shows to entertain his friends. Murder for the fun of it. It’s doubtful he was a stranger to the sensual pleasures and sexual perversions of Rome. And now he is in a backwater, with these people who are intolerant of such things. Constantly having to indulge his urges, and yet putting on a show so as not to offend the piety of his people. A slave of sin pretending a servant of virtue.
Then there is James the brother of John, the disciple. Here’s a man of the church, this new sect that the Jews do not like. The church had become more open to the gentiles. They were evangelizing among them. And this made the Jews mad, and it made Agrippa upset. Christianity still does this, it offends the virtuous as much as it offends the licentious. Forgiveness offends the worshipers of the law, love offends the worshipers of vice. The message of Christ offended both sides of Agrippa. The  killing of James was a no brainer. He meets martyrdom.

Nothing is really said about how he was caught or what he was imprisoned for. But that Rome was persecuting the church pleased the Jews, and so it continued all the more. Agrippa could slake his thirst for blood and make happy the people at the same time. So next Peter, but the church would pray earnestly, Luke says. It plays out differently.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Elders in Jerusalem

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers [3] living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30 (ESV)
Already in the first decades of the church, you see the concern Christians have for one another. And here it seems the gentiles are sending money to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. “See how they love one another.” Already tensions are brewing. Already there is a vocal circumcision party, suspicious of the gentile converts. The gentile converts put their best foot forward. They send money in anticipation of a famine that is prophesied to cover the world. Most people would stockpile their own resources at his time to prepare for this famine. But already due to the persecutions, the poor in Jerusalem were feeling the pinch.
They decide to send the money with Barnabus and Saul. It’s funny how one moment he is Paul, and the next Saul even after conversion. The likelihood is that he actually grew up with both of these names. It was common for Jews of the diaspora to have two names that sounded somewhat alike, one for use at home and among Jews, and the other to be used among gentiles. Since Paul is heading to Jerusalem he will be better known as Saul.

The other interesting thing is the use of the word elder here. In scripture this word is that which is used for what we know as the pastoral office. No mention is made of either the deacons (our elders) or the Apostles. The pastoral office it seems has already begun to take root in Jerusalem, and responsibilities are being given to these young pastors that just a couple years before would probably have been given to the apostles. The transition has to happen because the apostles will not always be with the people. The apostles are also called away from time to time to check on things elsewhere, and go to other lands. A person can learn of some of the travels of different apostles from Eusebius. If the church in Jerusalem is going to be stable it needs leadership of its own that doesn’t need to be shared with the rest of the church. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barnabus Goes For Paul

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists [2] also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:19-26 (ESV)
Barnabas, it’s odd, as many times as I have read Acts, I’ve never before noticed, until doing this running commentary, just what a critical role this man played in the beginning of the church. He is still respected in Jerusalem and he is from Cyprus himself, a Jew raised among the Hellenists with intimate knowledge of their culture, customs and language. In that matter, he had a similar background to Paul who grew up in Tarsus where he is now hanging out on ice as it were. So it is Barnabus that the church in Jerusalem asks to go check out the operations in Antioch, the birthplace of the name Christian.
Quite some time has elapsed since the persecution of Stephen. We are talking a minimum of four years, possibly as many as six. Paul was a part of this persecution, but when he converted he spent three years in Arabia, we know this from Galatians, then he worked in Jerusalem and opened up the old controversy, before being sent off to Tarsus. After Paul is sent off to Tarsus all this other stuff with Peter happens in Joppa and Caesarea. Meanwhile Paul has been off the radar. Barnabus has to go looking for him in Tarsus and it doesn’t seem he has an easy time of it. Indicating that during this time Paul isn’t very active in Evangelizing. On top of this you have this new church sprouting up in Antioch, both among the Jews and the Hellenists.
Hellenists could be just Greek speaking Jews, but the manner in which it is contrasted with Jews here indicates that these men are witnessing directly to pagans in Antioch, the third greatest city of the Roman empire, after Rome and Alexandria in Eygpt.

When Barnabus gets to Antioch to conduct his investigation he is overjoyed to see the gospel at work, and realizes that he needs someone to help with the work load of instructing and caring for all these people who are turning to the Lord. And he does something that will change the shape of Christianity forever, he seeks out Paul, to bring him back into service of the church. This is where Paul is called to shine, to learn from everything that has happened and put it to good use. This is an environment in which he will swim. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

God Grants Repentance

11:1 Now the apostles and the brothers [1] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:1-18 (ESV)
“Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” This is finally the confession of the circumcision party in regards to this event. But now they have made their appearance. Peter may have held the keys, but you can see from this he did not lord it over the congregation. He did not expect his word to just be accepted and the congregation to just go along with whatever he said.  It’s hard for me to comprehend all the details hinted at here. But there was a circumcision party, and they were part of the church. They were concerned about Peter, and why Peter had done what he had done.
It had to be hard for these Jewish converts, who really did not think of themselves as converts. After all, they believed in the Jewish messiah. They believed the messiah was coming, and now they believed he had come. There wasn’t a conversion here. Not as we normally think of conversion. And all the implications of the messiah had not yet been worked out. However, the first thought of a Jew upon being baptized would not have been “Yippee! Now I can eat bacon!” Their identity had been molded for centuries by laws and customs that were meant to set them apart from the unbelieving gentiles. And to now give up those laws and customs, and to let gentiles in with disregard to those laws and customs was something even Peter needed convincing of, and more than once in his life.
The circumcision party criticized Peter. It’s a harsh word. You went to the uncircumcised and you ate with them! You can hear the Pharisees speaking about how Jesus received sinners and ate with them. This will always be the criticism of Christians in one way or another. They accept sinners, take them where they are at. What’s even more remarkable is that Peter is concerned enough about the souls of sinners in both ditches that he does not come down hard on the circumcision party. If he takes offense at their criticism, he doesn’t blow back hard on them, he doesn’t say “who are you to question me, I’m an apostle!?” But rather he takes time to explain to them what had happened, why he did what he did. He understands that their criticism comes from weakness on their part, even if they think it is strength.

Then again, the circumcision party is also willing to listen to Peter, and hear what he  has to say. God grants them repentance too. When Peter explains all that has happened, they see that God grants the gentiles repentance that leads to eternal life. God grants repentance. We can never forget that. Repentance is not something we do, but something that is done to us. It Is the flipside of faith in reality, because you can’t have one without the other, even as you can’t have justification without sanctification. Repentance is given. It is not the same as giving up one sin or another, though often this is accompanied with repentance. Any  sinner can choose not to do this or that particular sin. Unbelievers have been known to abstain from sexual immorality, from drunkenness, from murder, theft, bearing false witness etc. That isn’t repentance. Repentance though is centered on the first commandment, and the only way to repent of breaking the first commandment is to believe, and they only way to believe is to be called by the gospel, and be given the gift of faith that comes by the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is the repentance that God grants, repentance that leads to eternal life.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Seven Time Seventy

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. [7] 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [8] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. [9] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant [10] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, [11] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, [12] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 (ESV)
“And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” so Jesus delivers the parable’s punchline, and the illustration of the kingdom of God is made complete.  What’s left to say?
On the one hand, this is something that we instinctively understand as Christians. We have been forgiven and so we are supposed to forgive. And yet of everything the Lord asks us to do, this is perhaps the hardest for our sinful nature. Seven times seventy Jesus says, that’s how often we are supposed to forgive our brother who sins against us. Even here Jesus contrasts the kingdom of heaven with the world. The seventy fold does not come out of nowhere. It was meant to bring to mind the Lament of Lamech as he tells his wives that he has killed a man for wounding him, a young man for striking him. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, mine is seventy seven fold.” A metaphor for the realities of the sinful world we live in. The dog eat dog, tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, justice to be served. But then everything escalates. And satisfaction of our slight we want even more than simple justice, retribution. But it isn’t ever slaked, the thirst never quenched.
No, and the grudges. Why do we hold on to these things? Yes, we know we ought to forgive. We understand what Christ says about forgiving from the heart. We even tell each other that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die. And that is precisely what it is like. How often is a grudge like that? How often have we watched grudges turn into bad choices that would otherwise not be made? How often hatred or a perceived slight has clouded judgment and torn a family apart? A congregation apart? And yet why? We hold onto these grudges like a two year old clinging to a blanky. They are like teddy bears the way we hold onto them a brood a venomous vipers, the rattlesnakes in our sleeping bags. This is the world of Cain, the reality of Lamech who knows the vengeance of this world is never satisfied with justice but bleeds over into revenge, and escalates to 70 fold.
And yet we would be forgiven, you and I. We beg God for mercy. I’m not sure we always realize what it is we are asking of God. Whatever the sins our neighbors have committed against us, multiply it by seventy times seven, and we haven’t even come close to realizing our transgressions against God, which also include our refusal to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart. Parents possibly understand this a bit more than others, how disappointing it is to see children who can’t get along. The pain it causes. Again, multiply it by seven times seventy and perhaps you start understanding the sin against God. Here’s his creation, his beloved image shared on the earth, and we think nothing of slandering them, seeking revenge upon them, causing their downfall, wishing their death. This is what God forgives us, his unworthy servants. This is what he forgives us. A debt that couldn’t be paid with any gold or silver, such an astronomical debt it could only be made right, the account justified by the blood of Christ, his innocent suffering and death, the only things that could make atonement, the death of God himself. Yes, when you ask for mercy, when you ask for forgiveness, you ask for his death!
But you? Are you willing to die? Are you willing to suffer death? Or even the slight to your pride? Jesus dies for you, but can you die for him? And it is death that is required. He who loses his life for my sake will save it, Jesus says. This life, the life of your old Adam, the sinful self- inside you that can’t take injury or insult. This is the life you lose. And how often must you lose it? 70 times 7 as many times as your brother asks forgiveness. Because God’s kingdom to which you belong, it isn’t about revenge, it isn’t even about justice, it’s about forgiveness. In God’s kingdom forgiveness is the air we breathe, it is the only thing by which we live. And so it is to forgiveness we are called in daily repentance drowning the old Adam in the waters of baptism and rising to the new life we have in Christ. No, it isn’t easy. And we fail at this too. Perhaps it is the greatest sin for which we need ask forgiveness, for mercy, and for grace to realize the extent of our debt to Christ for his mercy that we might also be able to extend that to others. No it isn't easy. It is death, and death is never easy, but it was done for you.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The House of Cornelius Baptized.

44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)
While Peter is speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon the people as is evidenced by the speaking in tongues through which they extolled God. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding just what it means to speak in tongues, but what we do know is that it was not unintelligible. Peter and the believers of the circumcised were convinced by it that these people, who were not circumcised had received the Spirit. So Peter comes to the conclusion that they should be baptized. This is the point of the whole story. What is great here is that the people received the Holy Spirit even before baptism, where as in the previous chapters the Samaritans received the Spirit after they had been baptized. In both of these cases the Spirit is used as confirmation of baptism and the validity of the faith for these people.

In fact there are only three cases where the Holy Spirit is given out our poured out on the people in this manner, Pentecost, for the whole church gathered together, in Samaria amongst baptized believers together, and here in Cornelius’s home. Never is it heard of that the Holy Spirit falls upon or is given out to an individual believer apart from his baptism in the New Testament. In the New Testament this is not an experience of the individual, but the experience of the church marking milestones in the direction the church should go when faced with decisive decisions.