Tag Archives: Paul

The Grace Response

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecutedthe church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them….
1 Corinthians 15:9-10a (NIV)

I was reminded yesterday of a high school teacher who showed me grace. That is, he showed favor to me that I did not merit. As I recall it was the last day of the semester and my grade was teetering between an A and a B. There was one assignment, a book report, that was sitting there blank in the teacher’s grade book. I hated reading when I was that age, a condition that didn’t change until late into my college years. I simply didn’t want to read a book and write a paper on it. I kept putting it off until it was too late. And so it was, I was called up to the teacher’s desk. He explained that the missing book report was the only thing standing in the way of me getting an A in the class.

I didn’t do it,” I told the teacher honestly.

He looked at me curiously. “You ‘didn’t do it’?” he asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

Look,” I answered, “I could stand here and tell you that the dog ate my paper or give you all sorts of excuses about why I didn’t get it done, but they would all be lies. The honest truth is that I simply procrastinated and didn’t get it done. I understand. I’ll have to accept a B for the course.”

Weeks later when my grades came in the mail (In the old days, you had to wait for the Postal Service to deliver your grades to your home), I was shocked to discover that the teacher had given me an A. Perhaps he was rewarding my honesty and candor. Perhaps he was simply doing a good deed. I don’t know why he graciously gave me the grade I didn’t deserve.

I can tell you that I was truly humbled by the gesture. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten away with something. It didn’t motivate me to try blowing off other assignments assuming that the “honesty ruse” would work again. Quite the opposite, the teacher’s grace motivated me to not do it again. Making sure I got my assignments done, even the book reports I didn’t want to do in college, was a way of honoring and showing gratitude for the grace that my teacher showed me. The favor I didn’t deserve.

During the early years of the Jesus Movement, there was a group within the community who argued that Jesus’ forgiveness and grace was a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “If I’m forgiven from my sins,” they reasoned, “I’m going to sin all I want! Jesus will forgive me! In fact, if I increase the rate of my sinning it means I get more of grace!” Paul addressed this foolishness in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome (see Romans 6).

In today’s chapter, Paul points to the unmerited favor he had been shown by Jesus when, as a murderer of Stephen and a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Jesus forgave him and called him to be an apostle. Paul knew he didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He deserved to by punished for what he’d done. Paul knew he deserved Jesus’ forgiveness and call to apostleship less than any of the other apostles. It motivated him to work harder than all the rest – to show his gratitude for the grace he’d been shown.

Along the journey I’ve come to observe that you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by the way he or she responds to grace.

 

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

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.