To Be Continued…

This week we look at the final chapter of Acts, in which Paul preaches and lives and…that’s it.  That’s where we’re left.  But why?  Why not continue with Paul’s story, why leave the ending open?  Read on for more insight…

Scripture: Acts 28:23-31

23 After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.

24 Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25 So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, 26 “Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 27 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’

28 Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him,

31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

Background on the Text:

  1. This is the end of the Book of Acts.  It is an odd ending, not telling the reader what happened to Paul.  Historical data about the end of Paul’s life is lacking, to say the least.  The Church tradition often says that Paul was martyred.
  2. This journey to Rome began back in chapter 21, where Paul traveled to Jerusalem. He is arrested, put on trial, and in the course of the trial, Paul reveals he is a Roman citizen.  Paul appeals to the Roman emperor himself, as was his right as a citizen, and so he is brought to Rome through a very long and dangerous journey.
  3. Having finally reached Rome, Paul the prisoner is allowed to live under house arrest at his own expense. He is permitted to have any guests that he  wants and our story tells us that he specifically met with the Jewish leaders.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. An odd point in the text is that the Jewish leaders say they haven’t heard of Paul and they say that their only knowledge of the “sect” Paul leads is negative.
  2. Paul sets a meeting with the leaders. For an entire day he lays out the case for the “kingdom of God” and explains who Jesus was.  Jesus’ main message was about the kingdom of God, so we have come back to the beginning of the gospel.
  3. Paul used the Law and the Prophets to explain all this: he never wavered from his message that the Christ was part of God’s continuing plan of salvation.
  4. Some are convinced but others still doubt. Paul admonishes the doubters by quoting from Isaiah 6.  The words should be familiar as Jesus also quoted them.
  5. Paul’s final remark is that at least the Gentiles will listen. He continues to “proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ” to all, however, which means all.
  6. Two years may have been significant in that some scholars believe if a trial didn’t happen in two years, the accused was set free. This rule may not have been in place at that time though.

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. Luke chooses not to end this book of the early Christian movement with any story of Paul’s martyrdom or his release from prison. This story ends with one of the main characters under house arrest in Rome.  What was Luke’s purpose in structuring his story this way?
  2. If you were writing the story of the early Christian movement, where would you have ended the story?
  3. If you were writing the story of the Coop, where would you end the first volume of our history?
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God’s Love Language

There were many theme ideas floating around this week:  “Know Your Audience” because Paul has adjusted his language to the people of Athens; “An Unknown God” because of Paul’s hook for the Athenians.  Personally I liked this one, “God’s Love Language”.  It came from reading the scripture in The Message (another interpretation of the Bible) and really spoke in an eloquent way.  How does God express his love to you?  Through you?  Here’s Paul’s story:

Scripture: Acts 17:16-34

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Background on the Text:

  1. Paul finds himself in Athens, not with the intent of preaching, but just to wait for Timothy and Silas to catch up with him. These three had been chased out of a number of cities after preaching the good news, and they had separated in Beroea.
  2. Paul is preaching to mixed crowds, of Jews and Gentiles, men and women. We need to be careful when the text says “the Jews:” this is referring not to all Jews but only to those Jews who were upset with Paul’s preaching.
  3. Athens was a leading city of the Roman Empire. It was known for its schools and its educated population.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. Paul does not remain idle in Athens. He observes how the Athenians were worshipping various gods, and the statues they have set up for this worship.
  2. Paul can’t contain himself. He preaches in the synagogues and the marketplace.  This is one way of saying he was preaching to both Jews and Gentiles.  The marketplace was often used by speakers to get their message out to the crowds.  Adherents of two schools of philosophy, Epicureans and Stoics, enter into these debates with Paul.
  3. Some folks think it would be good to bring Paul to the Areopagus. This refers both to a place (Mars Hill) in Athens where famous debates had taken place, and to the city council which met on the Areopagus.  In any case, the people are very polite and seem to truly want to hear what Paul has to say.
  4. Paul preaches, but he shapes his preaching to the audience. Paul never mentions Jesus’ name.  Instead he focuses on God, and uses some quotes from famous poets.  He doesn’t quote from the Hebrew Scriptures.
  5. His speech focuses on the idea of the existence of one God, who is creator of all, and how this one God cannot be contained within idols or shrines. His major point is that this one God is very immanent, or close to all people.  Paul quotes to Greek philosophers to make his point, driving home the idea that his ideas are not new to the well educated Greeks.
  6. Then Paul tells his audience that times have changed, and this one God wants all humanity to repent (change their lives, toward righteousness), because God has appointed one man to be judge over all humanity. Paul knows this because God has raised that man from the dead.
  7. Naturally people are mixed in their reactions. Some want to hear more, others scoff, and others become followers.  This entire scene is remarkable for its friendliness.  No one is thrown in jail or whipped for their beliefs!

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. This text is a prime example of situational preaching. Paul preaches in a way that his audience can understand.  How do we “preach” the good news to our neighbors in a way that they can understand?
  2. Have you ever adjusted the telling of your faith story to your audience? How did it go?
  3. Paul speaks of a God who is very close, indeed within us. What are the advantages and disadvantages to having such an image of God?
  4. Paul’s tells the Athenians the need for repentance is because God plans on judging the world soon. Is this an effective argument for our times?
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Purple Places

What are “Purple Places”?  It’s a simple question.  Purple is a fantastic color, loved by many and can symbolize many things:  mystery, spirituality, creativity, dignity, royalty, suffering and is also a color of mourning.  As we walk through our story today we see many “Purple Places”, which touch you the most?

Scripture: Acts 16:11-15

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Background on the Text:

  1. We are deep into the Paul section of Acts. The rest of the story of the beginnings of Christianity focuses on Paul and his companions as they bring the message of Christ to the world.
  2. The text alternates between a narrator who refers to Paul and the others as “they” and first person plural accounts referring to “we.”
  3. Immediately before this text is an account of all the places that Paul is traveling to. The impression is that this is a man on the move, but one still following the Spirit’s lead.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. The description of the journey at the beginning gives readers a view of the scope of Paul’s missions. He is moving all the way from Antioch, Syria, through the Turkish lands, and on to Macedonia which is north of Greece. This is a huge journey for that day, and approaching the center of power of the Roman Empire.
  2. Philippi was a city of Macedonia that was on the Aegean Sea, and it was an important trade port for the Empire. The population was very diverse, hailing from all over the Empire.
  3. “On the Sabbath” indicates that Paul was still living according to his Jewish customs, and he would continue this throughout his life.
  4. Paul and his companions go outside the city gate, by the river. This is symbolic for the kinds of people for whom Christianity would hold an appeal: those “outside” the bounds of authority, power, and custom.
  5. They suppose it is a place of prayer, and they find women praying there. Why these women were there is not explained, but we can guess that they were excluded from praying “inside” because they were women, or perhaps foreigners. They have formed their prayer group in the only way they can.
  6. Lydia is a fascinating character. She is one of the few women in the Bible with authority and power who is not linked to a man. Lydia is from Thyatira on the Turkish side of the Aegean, so she is a foreigner in Philippi. She is a trader in purple cloth, which is a luxury item. Purple is also the color associated with both royalty and suffering. So Lydia is a business woman on a business trip. But she is well known enough that she appears to be the leader of this worshipping community. Lydia is also the head of a household, so her decisions about religion will extend to her household.
  7. Paul and his friends join this group of women. This far west in the Roman Empire there would not be the same taboos about men and women associating in public. Paul is just looking for converts of any kind, and following the lead of the Spirit.
  8. Lydia is a worshipper of God: again this means she is a Gentile with interest in and leanings toward the Jewish faith.
  9. Paul tells the gospel story and Lydia is convinced to change her life. She and her household are baptized.
  10. Most importantly Lydia offers her patronage to Paul. The church in Philippi that grows out of this encounter will be a favorite of Paul’s. Although Lydia is not mentioned again as a leader, two other women are mentioned: Euodia and Syntyche. (Philippians 4:2-3)

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. How far would we go to proclaim the gospel? Where are the places we don’t want to go?
  2. How do we proclaim the gospel without denying the validity other faith ideas?
  3. The good news appealed most to people who found themselves to be outsiders in one way or another to the dominant culture. Why do you think this was true?
  4. Why do you think the stories of the women who helped found the early Church movement were “lost” or ignored? What other people have we ignored in the telling of our history?
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Who Knows?

This week we’re celebrating All Saints Day, the remembrance of those who have passed in the last year, as well as our theme “Who Knows?”.  The two together could raise many questions about life and death and everything in between.  Who does know?  Read on to find out…

Scripture: Acts 15:1-21

1 Then certain individuals 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 discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.

3 So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.

4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.’ 19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Background on the Text:

  1. This is the physical center of Acts: the first half of the story has ended, and the second half begins with this story. It is also the last time Peter is mentioned in Acts. Paul takes over from this point.
  2. The story is central to an issue that defined Christianity. Was it possible to be Jewish and Christian at the same time? Although the story is told from the viewpoint of the early Jewish leaders of the Christian movement, it was the beginning of the eventual split between Jews and Christians. This split would take place over almost 300 years. Paul was a vehement supporter of the idea that yes, it was possible to be Jewish and a follower of Christ, as it was possible to be Gentile and a follower of Christ. He ultimately lost this argument.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the good news north of Jerusalem: in Antioch, where they got started, Cyprus, Iconium, and Lystra, among other places. They have had tremendous success among both Jews and Gentiles.
  2. Some Jewish Christians enter these areas, and tell the new Gentile converts that in order to be saved, (receive God’s blessings) the Gentiles must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas strongly disagree.
  3. To settle this dispute, Paul, Barnabas and a few others go to Jerusalem and bring the matter to the Twelve and other leaders of the church. Along the way, Paul, never one to pass up a chance to preach, converts more Gentiles.
  4. There is first and all-church meeting, in which Paul and Barnabas tell of their successes with the Gentiles. These Gentiles have had no previous experience with Judaism: that is, they are not God-fearers as Cornelius was.
  5. At the all church meeting, some in the conservative Pharisee faction argue that the Gentiles have to accept the full panoply of Jewish laws and customs in order to be true followers of Christ.
  6. The apostles and leaders move into an executive session. Paul and Barnabas again tell of their successes. Interestingly, it is Peter who supports the idea of not burdening the Gentiles with the “yoke” of obeying the Law of Moses as well as living a Christian life.
  7. Next, James (a prominent leader, but unclear if he is a brother of Jesus or not) proposes a compromise: the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised, but they should follow some of the dietary laws, and not participate in fornication. These are considered to be rules that are so well known, that they are almost common sense.
  8. The upshot of this is that a letter with this compromise is sent to the Gentile churches, and they accept the agreement with joy.

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. Paul tells a slightly different version of this incident in Galatians 2. In Paul’s version, there is no mention of a compromise and he instead asks all members to be sensitive to the “weaknesses” of others in their practice. If eating food offered to idols makes someone else fall in their spiritual walk, then one should not eat food offered to idols. (See Romans 14)
  2. What makes us Christians? What customs, practices, and rituals are important and identify us as Christians, and which of these can we set aside for the sake of unity?
  3. We have an obvious parallel in the Coop, although it shouldn’t separate us as much as the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians. We have people in the Coop who are cradle Lutherans or Methodists, and some who have no church background at all. What are we willing to sacrifice (customs, rituals, practices) for the sake of unity? What stumbling blocks do we place in front of each other in the name of tradition?
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Bent, not Broken: Reformation Sunday!

This week we celebrate Reformation Sunday, the birth of the protestant beliefs, and our Lutheran heritage!  For those of you who may not know the history here’s a brief synopsis starring (lego) Martian Luther:  Lego Reformation

Our devotional this week looks at inclusion and exclusion from faith.  How tradition plays into these divisions, and what should we look at reforming…

Scripture: Acts 10:1-29, 44-48

1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter;

6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him,

8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him.

24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,

35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,

41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

45 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, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Background on the Text:

  1. From this point forward in Acts, the shift in the story is toward conversion of the Gentiles. Peter remains a central character until chapter 13, when Paul takes over.
  2. This is the story of Peter’s conversion to more openness to the Gentiles. Later Paul will accuse him of going back on his word.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. Cornelius is a very Greek name, and he is a Roman soldier, in charge of 100 soldiers. The town Caesarea is a port city associated with the Herods, along the Israel coast. All this explains that the story is about Gentile conversion.
  2. Cornelius is a God-fearer. These were people who were devout and worshipped the God of Israel but were not Jews. It was common that the head of the household dictated the religious lives of his entire household.
  3. Cornelius has a vision: again, a sign of his closeness to God. The vision isn’t very specific. It merely tells him to send for Simon Peter. Cornelius does so.
  4. Meanwhile, back in Joppa, Peter has a vision. He sees a picnic blanket lowered from heaven containing all kinds of food. They are not specified as being unclean, but rather represent all the animals placed on earth. See Genesis 1: 20-25.
  5. Peter is told to eat (remember he is in a trance), but Peter objects because some of the animals are not “clean” according to the Jewish customs. The dietary laws were one of the ways that Jews maintained a distinctive identity separate from non-Jews. So asking Peter to eat unclean animals was asking him to set aside his identity.
  6. God or the angel said, God had made clean all the animals on the sheet. The word “profane” comes from the Latin, profanus which is pro: before, and fanum: temple.
  7. Before Peter can meditate on this, the people from Cornelius show up. Another angel tells Peter to answer the door. The fact that Gentiles would seek out a Jew was quite noteworthy, as was Peter’s hospitality to them. Peter puts them up for the night and then they all go (with a few extra believers) to Joppa the next day.
  8. Upon arriving at Cornelius’ house, Peter is surprised to see a small crowd of people. Cornelius tries to worship Peter, but Peter puts him straight. Again, a most extraordinary gesture.
  9. We get a bit of repetition then, with each side telling the story of the visions. But by then, Peter has figured out the meaning of his vision: he is to preach to all people because all people are acceptable to God. Actually those who fear God are acceptable. So Peter preaches once again.
  10. The gift of the Holy Spirit pours out on the Gentiles and they begin speaking in tongues. Peter asks a rhetorical question, and then baptizes them. For good measure Peter stays a few days longer.

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. This is a story of the ever increasing circle of inclusion of the early Church. Why do groups exclude others to begin with?
  2. The dietary laws of the Jewish people were markers of their identity as God’s chosen people. What markers do we have as God’s children? Which of those markers do we use to exclude others from God’s love?
  3. Whom are we excluding from God’s care?
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Journey to Jesus: A Chosen Instrument

This week we look at the story of Saul’s conversion and re-examine our own.  Finding our faith within a group, within our church and our own personal stories can connect to the conversion of Saul, curious how?  Read on!

Scripture: Acts 9:1-19a

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Background on the Text:

  1. From this point forward in Acts, the shift in the story is toward conversion of the Gentiles. Peter remains a central character until chapter 13, when Paul takes over.
  2. Luke will repeat this story twice more in Acts: 22:1-16, 26:9-18, with slight variations.
  3. Saul is mentioned previously in Acts: 7:58 and 60, in the story of the stoning of Stephen. “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. “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. There is evidence of the high priest giving letters of extradition to have fugitives brought to Jerusalem, but it is unclear if this was the case for the early Christians, as the story suggests.
  2. Saul was himself from Tarsus, outside Jerusalem, so familiar with the areas to which he would travel.
  3. “The Way” was the term for early Christianity.
  4. Saul sees a light and then hears a voice. Since the question is “Why do you persecute me?” a connection is made between Christ and the followers of Christ.
  5. Saul has a perfectly logical question, “Who are you, lord?” The word “Lord” is a term of address not the title given to Jesus.
  6. Jesus gives a straightforward answer with his name, and the fact that further instructions will be given, beyond, “Get up.”
  7. Saul would have been traveling with an entourage. These men hear the voice but don’t see anyone.
  8. Saul can no longer see. He is blinded by the experience, or perhaps his blindness now just manifests itself physically.
  9. He was brought to Damascus and spent three days, not eating or drinking.
  10. The story shifts focus to a disciple named Ananias. While Saul is blind, Ananias receives a vision. Pretty cute. When the Lord calls, Ananias gives the classic answer: “Here I am Lord.” Ananias gets told to go to Saul and lay hands on him to heal his blindness. But Saul’s reputation precedes him. Ananias is afraid.
  11. God tells Ananias that Saul has been chosen for the work ahead, and that Saul will have to suffer greatly for this work. This is something of a classic call story for a prophet: called, but reluctant to take up the work at first.
  12. Ananias goes to Saul, heals him and adds that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. It works.
  13. Saul then is baptized, a sign of new life, and eats and regains his strength. In his own retelling of this story in Galatians, Saul says he went away at once to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus and began his ministry. This is not in Acts.

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. What is your conversion story? When did it happen? Were you aware that you needed conversion? What were you converted from? What were you converted to?
  2. Saul is “blind” to The Way. What have we been blind to in our “conversion” to becoming the Coop?
  3. Are we ready to say “Here we are Lord?” Are we ready for the consequences of committing to Christ?
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Listening to God

This week we hear the story of Phillip following the guidance of God to launch a man’s conversion.  Phillip does not hesitate in his given task, but runs to do the Spirit’s bidding.  Is listening to God any harder today?  And why is this guy being a eunuch such a big deal?  Read on to find out!

Scripture: Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Background on the Text:

  1. This passage begins an interesting and troublesome aspect of the Book of Acts, namely the relationship between the Jews, the Jewish Christians, and the Gentile Christians. In general, the early Christians needed to understand for whom the gospel was proclaimed, and God’s continuing promises to the Jewish people. Acts tries to address these concerns, but sometimes veers into anti-Semitism, which we must avoid.
  2. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is the first prominent story of an “outsider” being converted to the new faith.
  3. This story immediately precedes the story of the conversion of Paul, and thus is the last story of this section of the Book of Acts. 

Exegesis (close reading of the text):

  1. Philip is either one of the original apostles or one of the “seven” who were chosen to serve. It is probably more likely this is the original apostle.
  2. Philip has most recently been preaching in Samaria, which was an area that was considered not perfectly Jewish, since they hailed from the part of Israel that had been conquered by the Assyrians back in 722 BCE. These folks had developed their own customs and rituals related to Judaism.
  3. The angel of the Lord tells Philip to go toward Gaza. The trip is presented as a God thing. Ethiopia was then a region south of Egypt, also known as Cush or Nubia. Eunuchs were castrated males who were usually put in charge of the king’s harem, but many rose to high rank in the monarchs’ courts. This eunuch was the treasurer for the Candace, or queen of Ethiopia. The Hebrew scriptures have a mixed record where eunuchs were concerned. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it states that eunuchs “will not be admitted to the assembly,” generally interpreted as they couldn’t go into the Temple. But Isaiah 56:3-5 promises that eunuchs and foreigners will be included: 3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” This was a promise given to the Israelites during the Babylonian exile
  4. This particular eunuch had traveled to Jerusalem, presumably on business, but stopped in the Temple? to worship. He was a devout man, and on the return home he was reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
  5. At the urging of Spirit, Philip goes over to the chariot and hears the eunuch reading (all reading was done aloud). So Philip rather boldly asks if the eunuch understands what he is reading.
  6. The eunuch gives an interesting answer: how can I understand unless someone guides me? The message is that the Hebrew Scriptures are in need of expert interpretation.
  7. The passage that was being read was Isaiah 53:7-8. This is one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. The identity of the Servant was, and is, highly debated. Philip uses this as an opportunity to interpret the Servant Song as referring to Jesus. Other interpretations say that it refers to the people Israel, or the prophet Isaiah.
  8. The eunuch clearly believes Philip’s interpretation, and is moved to ask to be baptized, a sign of conversion and new life. They stop near water, the eunuch is baptized, and Philip is whisked away.

Questions the text asks of us:

  1. Again, we see that in Acts, the Church is Spirit-led. Everything good that happens is due to the Spirit’s urging. How do we know when the Spirit is leading us?
  2. The history of Christianity is one of exclusion and inclusion. We have excluded and then included just about every identifiable group at some point in our history. The story of Acts generally follows the trajectory of more and more people being included in God’s plans. What is the history of the Coop within this cycle of exclusion and inclusion? Where are our growing edges?
  3. The story revolves around a particular interpretation of Isaiah. This approach, to develop a Christo-centric interpretation of texts that predated Jesus by at least 500 years, was the dominant Christian interpretive mode for almost 2000 years. It completely ignored the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures were written for the Jewish people living in a particular time and context that had nothing to do with Jesus. The purpose of this interpretative style was to show that God had always planned on having Jesus “save” humanity, and so the Hebrew Scriptures predicted everything about Jesus. Why do you think this was important to so many people?
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