Tag Archives: Paul

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

The Maverick

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Galatians 1:11-12 (NIV)

Note to my regular readers: Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts (which we just finished blogging through yesterday). In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate, so I will be making a few educated guesses myself. We begin with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia.

I’ve always had a bit of maverick in me. Maverick is a relatively contemporary word rooted historically in a south Texas lawyer by that name back in the 19th century. Given a herd of cattle as payment of the debt, Maverick the lawyer had no need for the livestock. He left the cattle unbranded and let them roam free. The name soon became synonymous with an “unbranded” individual who likes to blaze their own trails and go their own way.

Being a maverick is one way I find myself really identifying with Paul. I see it all over the place in the opening to his letter to the believers in the region of Galatia in Asia Minor where he’d traveled and established local gatherings of believers on his first mission to the region (Acts 13-14). He begins his letter to the believers there establishing his individual authority apart from the Twelve and James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem.

First, Paul reminds his readers that he received the Message from the risen Christ, not from another human being. The “Apostles” to early believers were those followers of Jesus to whom the risen Christ appeared and commissioned. Paul repeatedly placed himself in this category by stating that the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and commissioned him to share the Message. The fact that his was a singularly unique appearance and calling made Paul a maverick. While the Twelve eventually embraced Paul and his calling, they also let him do his own thing.

Paul next makes it clear to the believers in Galatia that, after the dramatic events on the road to Damascus, that he didn’t go directly to Jerusalem and present himself to the Twelve. He went off, by himself, to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. The subtext of this claim is that Paul, once again the maverick, did his own thing and went his own way apart from the Twelve.

He goes on to explain that it was three years later before he traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. The Greek word Paul uses makes it clear that he was met with hospitality. Still, he specifies that it was only Peter and James. He didn’t meet the other eleven apostles.

This morning I’m reminded of the huge paradigm change Jesus introduced to those early believers. For well over a thousand years the Jewish paradigm introduced through Moses had been that “ministry” (I refer to the priestly sacrifices and duties of the tabernacle/temple) had been confined to certain people. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple. “Ministry” was restricted to the privileged few.

Among the early believers of Jesus everyone (including women, foreigners, youth, slaves, rich, poor, etc.) who believed and received the Holy Spirit received a spiritual gift to use in ministering to everyone else. Everyone was a part of the ministry.

This made way for a maverick like Paul. The Twelve and James were doing the thing Jesus called them to do down in Jerusalem and wherever. Paul had his own calling from Jesus. He blazed his own trail. If the ministry of the temple was confined, the ministry of the Message of Jesus was liberated and unlimited.

Which leads back to me. Somewhere along the line the institutional church decided to once again define and confine “ministry” to a privileged and approved few. But that was never the paradigm. Since the day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit has never been confined. The ministry of Jesus’ love through the gifts of the Spirit is the privilege and calling of every believer, even me. Which, I must admit, stirs my own maverick heart.

 

To Be Continued….

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Acts 28:30 (NIV)

It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.

As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?

I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.

Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.

I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.

And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.

The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.

In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.

I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.

Have a great day, my friend.

Weathering the Storm

 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.
Acts 27:22 (NIV)

Living in the midwest you soon learn that some rather nasty storms can pop up at a moment’s notice. This past summer Wendy and I were witness to a small handful of storms that did considerable damage. It’s always disconcerting to survey the aftermath and find one house almost completely obliterated while the house next door appears to have no damage at all.

I thought of those storm and the damage we witnessed as I read today’s chapter. Paul is in the custody of a Roman centurion making his way to Rome where he is to be tried in Caesar’s court. A terrible storm comes up threatening the lives of everyone on board the ship. Throughout the ordeal, Paul continues to assure the passengers that they will be okay. He urges them to keep up their courage and their physical health. Paul had received an angelic message assuring him that God’s purpose was that Paul stand before the Emperor, not die at sea.

I couldn’t help but contrast the experiences of Paul with another famous sea-faring voyager, Jonah. In Jonah’s case, he was on the run and trying to escape his destiny. His reactions and responses amidst the storm are a stark contrast to Paul.

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded of Jesus’ words: “[Your Heavenly Father] sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In other words, I can’t escape the storms of life. They will crop up when I least expect them and everyone has to weather them from time to time. The difference between Paul and Jonah, was in their purposes. Paul was sailing with purpose. He was on a mission, and he was confident that the storm was not going to alter his date with destiny. Jonah, on the other hand, was running away from God’s expressed purpose for him.

I can’t stop the storms of life from raging, but the purpose with which I’m walking this Life Journey can make all the difference in how I weather them.

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 3)

Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Acts 26:32 (NIV)

What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read today’s chapter which Chronicles Paul’s trial before Porcius Festus, King Agrippa II, and Agrippa’s sister, Bernice. One of the reasons the Roman Empire was so successful at occupying so much of the world for so long was that they found a way to occupy a region while allowing the local ruling families to continue to have certain power and jurisdiction. In this hearing, Paul is allowed to make his defense before both the local monarch, Agrippa II, and the Roman Procurator who represented Rome’s interest in the area.

Paul wastes no time in making his appeal to Agrippa who had life-long knowledge of Judaism, its laws, and the various sects that brokered for power within the Temple system. Festus may not have had very limited knowledge of what it meant for Paul to have been raised a strict, law-abiding Pharisee. Agrippa, on the other hand, could fully understand the weight of Paul’s testimony and defense. Sure enough, Festus appears baffled by it all and thinks Paul’s whole story crazy. Paul then calls on Agrippa’s belief in the prophets and attempts to convince the king of Jesus’ Message.

Today’s chapter ends with Festus and Agrippa agreeing that Paul could have been released had he not appealed to Caesar. But Paul knew his fate when he made his appeal. He knew what he was doing. He would write to the believers in Ephesus, “I am an Ambassador in chains.”

To the believers in Philippi he wrote:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

To the believers in Colossae he wrote:

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Once again, as I read all of the events of Paul’s choices, his arrest, and his trials, I don’t find him to be a victim. I find Paul to be a man on a personal mission of his own choosing. He’s sacrificing his own personal freedom and well-being to advance Jesus’ Message .

Which brings me back to the question spinning around in my spirit in the quiet this morning:  What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 2)

If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
Acts 25:11 (NIV)

Our daughter and her family recently moved to the United Kingdom along with some good friends who were scheduled to leave about the same time. On the the eve of their departure, their friends were still dealing with a snafu with their visas. As they explained it to me, the whole affair became maddening cluster of a situation involving frantic phone calls, an attorney, government bureaucracy, and university bureaucracy. The maddening situation ultimately delayed their departure for an indefinite period of time and kept them in hurry-up and wait limbo.

As we enter today’s chapter, Paul has been imprisoned in a similar “hurry up and wait” limbo in the regional Roman justice system. The Roman Procurator, Felix, had kept Paul in prison for two years as a favor to the powerful Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Felix is replaced with a man named Festus to who begins his tenure in office with a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem where the Jewish religious leaders urge him to return Paul to Jerusalem (so they could assassinate him). Festus makes a political countermove by urging them to come to Caesarea and make their accusations.

In Part 2 of Paul’s trials the Jewish leaders make their accusations. Once again they have no evidence and accuse Paul of nothing that would be deserving of death. Festus, however, is a new Procurator playing a political game of chess with the political players of his region. He attempts to appease the Jewish religious leaders by asking Paul if he’d be willing to go to Jerusalem and let the case be heard there.

Paul knows that this is a mockery of Roman justice being suggested for political gain. To return to Jerusalem would only pander to his enemies and accusers. It’s essentially a step backwards and to agree would place him in a weaker position. Festus obviously wants to appease Paul’s accusers and Paul can smell a rat. If Festus is willing to try the case in Jerusalem, outside of Roman civil court, then he just might be willing to make Paul a sacrificial offering to shore up his political position.

Paul now makes a bold move and appeals to Caesar. This is a bold move because Festus has not actually tried Paul’s case and has not rendered a verdict. It was a risky move because Festus might have ultimately released Paul. The case against Paul was weak and executing a Roman Citizen for political gain with the Jews would not have been a good political move within the Empire. It was also risky because appealing to Caesar meant being sent to Rome and more languishing in the Roman justice system for an indefinite time. Paul also knew that his surprise appeal would give Festus a political out: “Sorry guys. I tried to bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial, but he appealed to Caesar. He’s a Roman Citizen. My hands are legally tied.”

As a read this morning I find myself, once again, trying to crawl into the mind of Paul. Paul clearly stated when he went to Jerusalem was that his motivation is to expand the Message of Jesus and to proclaim the Message across new boundaries. He wants to push the Message forward. The prospect of a return to Jerusalem would only put him back where he’s already been for years. The appeal to Caesar, while risky, offered the potential for his story and his witness to become a matter of official public record in the Roman Empire. In essence, Paul’s deft legal maneuver assured that he wouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb for Festus’ political gain, but he would willingly sacrifice himself for the sake of Jesus and taking the Message of Jesus to the very heart of the Roman Empire.

Being stuck in the limbo of bureaucracy can be maddening. Just ask Taylor’s friends about their experience. I find that Paul, however, is finding purpose in the pain of his situation. It comes down to motives. His ultimate motivation is not about his physical freedom, but freeing others by furthering the Message of Christ. With that in mind, he’ll use his circumstances to achieve his goal.