Friday, November 21, 2014

Perfect Imperfections

 30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. [5] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. (Acts 15:29-35 (ESV)
Rejoiced because of the encouragement. The tension is resolved both in Jerusalem and Antioch. The people are happy. It’s a good day in the life of the church. Judas and Silas return to Jerusalem. Actually the missing verse 34 says that Silas stayed. There is some dispute over the late manuscripts that say that. And it seems unlikely from the rest of the text, so it is left out of modern translations.

There is always this thing with the N.T. manuscripts. None of it fell from heaven. It’s “inerrancy” is not  found in minutia, but in the message itself, and that isn’t harmed by whether or not Silas stayed in Antioch or not, neither is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit harmed by such things. Those who study the manuscripts find these sorts of discrepancies from time to time, and have to decide which one is closer to the original, or originals. It’s a fantastic study to look at all the different aspects that go along with manuscript study. Yet it causes heart burn for many. You run across fundamentalists who will have a heart attack at the thought that the Apostle John might have misspelled a word. A theology of glory can’t handle error or discrepancy. It’s the theology of the perfectionist. The odd thing  about  it though is that none of these discrepancies really change anything one way or another about what we believe as Christians. My salvation is just not dependent upon whether or not Silas stayed in Antioch or not. What matters is whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, what matters is the content of that which is written and communicated. And the imperfect means by which God communicates our perfect salvation is the perfection with which he uses what is weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. It really is a brilliant revelation of himself and his love for man.   

Thursday, November 20, 2014

One Accord

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers [3] who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you [4] with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:22-29 (ESV)
“Having come to one accord.” The church in Jerusalem was concerned to hear of what had happened in Antioch. The men that were troubling consciences there had not been sent by them to do this. Now they are sending men to undo what had been done because it needed undoing. The church had come to one accord. It wasn’t that they voted on this, or that one party overruled another but having been led by the spirit to examine the issue they had come to a determination of what needed to be done.  But that no more offense would be caused they asked that the gentiles refrain from sexual immorality and some things that Jews would find particularly offensive to their sensibilities.
This caused some confusion later on as there were fewer and few Jewish Christians. Many in the church tried to treat all of these things as moral issues. This letter was meant to address a particular situation and wasn’t meant for all times and in all places. That they had to write concerning sexual immorality, though, shows just how rampant that sort of thing was at the time among the Greeks and Romans. Paul has to deal with that issue over and over again in all his epistles, where it is meant for all Christians, at all times.

The real issue at the bottom of all of this is love. How do we show love for one another in Jesus Christ. One aspect of this is trying to behave in a community in such a way that doesn’t cause offense to the other members of that community. The unity of the church is something that matters. That people can learn to get along with one another, even if it means giving up blood sausage at the potlucks. Because if we can’t show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we won’t be showing that to others. This is why divisiveness in the church is so harmful, and if we can’t love each other we can’t love God either. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Blood Sausage

19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21 (ESV)
Lately I keep thinking I really ought to try blood sausage. Perhaps it is just watching Anthony Bourdain reruns early Saturday morning that has me wanting to expand my gastric horizons. I haven’t seen it on the menu around here. Perhaps if I ever make it to New York I’ll visit one of those fancy places that has it during a Mocking Bird Conference. The thought gets me thinking though about this portion of scripture. I’m not sure any of us worry about this sort of thing too much. Perhaps the bit about sexual immorality is the only one from this list of “minimum” standards we are really concerned about or should be. Idols aren’t even on our radar these days. Though, perhaps they should be. It is not uncommon these days that the food you have eaten in an Indian restaurant has actually been offered to an idol. This is true also of much a person might eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant where at least the meat has been presumably offered to Allah upon sacrifice. But then Paul’s, don’t ask don’t tell sort of policy recommended to the Corinthians tends to be the dominating principle for Christians. This really applied to going to a temple to eat, or if a friend made a point to tell you to whom the meal was offered then to politely decline eating at that particular party. The only “strangled” animals I can think of ever coming across and eating have been fresh shot Chukar, sometimes they don’t die quite on impact and the polite thing to do is ring their necks. Somehow I just don’t think this is what the text is getting at.

The sexual immorality is the only one of the above mentioned things that is dealt with in the Ten Commandments. Well, the eating food offered to Idols, knowingly doing so, could be seen as a violation of the first commandment where we are admonished not to bow before idols. But like I said, this then is handled by Paul more directly in 1 Cor. Most of this was an appeal to the Christians to not cause needless offense to their Jewish brethren. And that whole concept can get rather confusing rather fast. But as a general rule it is a good thing to consider not causing needless offense to anyone in the name of the gospel, and yet still maintaining your Christian freedom. It is doubtful that eating blood pudding at a restaurant in Manhattan is going to cause offense to anyone today. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Gospel Fulfilled

12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant [2] of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ Acts 15:12-18 (ESV)]

James gets up and quotes Amos to make his point. The gentiles don’t have to become Jews in order to be Christians. He sees the words of Amos being fulfilled in the ministries of Peter and Paul and Barnabas. This is the gospel being fulfilled. So the foundation of the prophets and the apostles is laid, and Jesus is the cornerstone. The three of them have agreed in his name and now it will be accomplished. The gospel is for all people, salvation of all whom God has created even as it is for all of his creation. 

The Master Returns

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants [3] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, [4] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. [5] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
(Matthew 25:14-30 (ESV)

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
So Jesus ends the parable of the talents with which he describes the kingdom of God as a merchant who trusts his servants with his capital to invest as they see fit while he  is gone, and when he returns he wants to see what they have done with it, to rejoice with them in their good fortune. “Well done good and faithful servant,” He says, “enter into the joy of your master.” This is his response to the two who invested what they had, and had managed to double their money. They put it all in circulation. It paid dividends. They enjoyed their life, and now their Lord gives them more. One of them didn’t do this. He buried his talent. Lived the whole time in fear of the accounting, and when it came even what he has is taken from him. He would have been better off if he had lost it all in a bad investment.
Of course, it is a parable. The talents here, a monetary unit in antiquity equating into the double digits in our economy, is merely metaphor for the abundance that our Lord has given us in this life. It can be quite a staggering thing to contemplate. The old count your blessing’s routine. You have your family, your job, house and home. You have your eyes and ears and all your senses. You have your hobbies, your aptitudes, your abilities, your talents. First God gives you this life and then he gives you everything you need, everything you have. It’s all gift. None of it really belongs to you. It all belongs to him who has given you your life in the first place, it belongs to him to whom your life belongs, Jesus Christ, who lived and died for your sake.
This is the man, the merchant, the master in the parable who trusts his servants with everything he has and leaves to go abroad for a while, even delays in coming back because he trusts and loves his servants, he trusts and loves you. This is the Man, Jesus Christ. This is the master who gives so generously to his slaves. This is the man, Jesus Christ, you know, the one whose sole purpose in coming at all was to die for you, to shed his blood for your salvation. Jesus the one who came to save the world, who doesn’t want or care to condemn the world. He gave his life for you! This is how much he loves you. So he says do what you want with the money, but do something with it! You don’t bury it. This is the thing, this last servant just insults Jesus. Refuses to enjoy his life. Lives in constant fear of God, despite all that God has done for him. Buries his treasure and refuses to use it. He’s afraid of owing his master anymore than he already does, and the others are certain that God could care less if they lost it all as long as they tried to do something with it. They are certain that there master will take care of them. The servants know their master and they trust him. So they invest his money for Him, and he gets returns, and the benevolent master shows even more benevolence.  
It is Jesus who is coming back. He’s been gone awhile, but he remains true to his word that he comes soon. He didn’t come to condemn us the first time he came, neither does he want to condemn when he returns, He came to save, and he desires that all men would be saved and come to the knowledge of truth, and it is to that end that he leaves you here. That through you, his word would spread, be told and retold, shared with those you love, friends and family, coworkers and employees. To this end he has given you all that you have, and asks you to be part of the production, you, his trusted servants. And this is what you do today as you take part in the voters meeting and approve the budget, as you teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, yes, even here in the church where you invest your money to make the budget you vote on, even here you join in the enterprise, even as you leave here in the forgiveness of sins and go to work, go home and to school and carry with you the name of Christ given in baptism that others would know of this master who comes again to welcome you into the joy of his kingdom who are here today, who make use of all that God has given you, that God himself would bless your work and double your returns, faith for faith strengthened, love for love fortified, hope for hope fulfilled in the return of Jesus Christ, enter into the joy of your master.

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Saved by Grace

6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:6-11 (ESV)

Peter is the one who comes to the defense of the gentiles. He had dealt with this controversy before. He has personal experience. And if the Holy Spirit has been given to gentiles without circumcision what more could be asked? Peter himself probably hasn’t changed his diet all that much. It’s hard to imagine that he woke up after a life time of kosher food and just decided he would start having bacon for breakfast every morning and lobster for dinner. We know from Galatians that he himself will have problems with all of this from time to time. But one thing he can’t deny, and doesn’t want to deny, that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus. No one is saved by the  law. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Forgiving You Your Code

15:1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. [1] 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1-5 (ESV)
This controversy just doesn’t solve itself overnight. Peter deals with it a couple times. And Paul does too.
It’s got to be hard for the Jewish people. There whole culture is being assaulted in the name of their Messiah. Can this be right? Christ was circumcised, but his followers don’t need to be? Christ ate kosher but his disciples don’t have to? The idea that Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf was a hard one to swallow. The Jews took as much pride in these laws as anyone does in their creed, in their code. Sure, there were times when the law became oppressive to the people. But for the most part they were proud of it, it separated them from others, it distinguished them. And God had given this law to them for their salvation.

For the Pharisees who had become Christian, there is something acute about the clash of the law with the gospel. But it is something that can be noticed even today. There is a tendency to use the gospel somewhat as a shield against one’s own particular sins, but then to think it doesn’t cover those other sins. It doesn’t cover your sins either. It forgives you. It forgives you who take pride in your law and think that somehow despite all the sin in your life, your creed makes you better, your personal code distinguishes you from those around you, and earns you favor with God. It forgives you that sin.