Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Promise of the Holy Spirit--Acts 2

The past couple of weeks, we mentioned wisdom as a prayer that God will always answer. Last week we identified the Holy Spirit as the source of wisdom.
The Holy Spirit is a promised gift. Peter lays out for us how we received Jesus’ promised gift. After preaching what is perhaps the most perfect sermon, Peter tells those who have been convicted by the preaching and by seeing God’s mighty acts through the apostles to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The results of baptism and repentance are the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Peter says, “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” not “you might receive the Spirit.” It’s a given. In fact, Peter goes on to say that this is such a sure gift, that it’s not just for the people present, but for their children, for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him. That means us. We are ones far away. We are ones whom God has called. As Charles Spurgeon says, “if you have repented of having done wrong because you see that you have sinned against your loving Lord, and if you come to Him repenting and believing, and confess Him as he bids you confess Him in baptism; then you have full remission, and you shall be partakers of the gifts and graces of his Holy Spirit, and henceforth you shall be chosen witnesses for the Christ whom God hath raised from the dead.”
Calvin defines repentance as a person renouncing self and “taking his farewell of the world, then addicting oneself wholly to God.” Repentance is continual, not so much because we have to start over and over, but so that we can continue moving forward. Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Theological Seminary adds, “The resurrection and ascension of Jesus require from ignorant humanity a new understanding of who he is and an embrace of his authority to exercise God's rule within creation.” This new understanding is repentance.
The Spirit marks us as sons of God; thus in Romans 8, He is called the Spirit of Adoption. The Spirit is the seal of our salvation; thus the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Life and the Spirit of Grace. What has been a sign that the Spirit is working in your life? For some it is overflowing joy; for others it is an overwhelming awareness of God’s love. For some it is a dramatically transformed life or liberation from the bondage of a particular sin or consequence of the Fall. For some it is illumination—actually understanding Scripture perhaps for the first time or in a new way. This is why the Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth. For others it is awareness of one’s spiritual gift and the ability to operate out of that gift; for others the ability to live the way that God intends. The Holy Spirit is also called the Spirit of Holiness. The Holy Spirit does all of this and more. The Spirit reveals the Godhead to us; He is the Spirit of Glory. The Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray; the Spirit is called the Spirit of Supplications.
There is an interesting thing that happens in the grammar in verse 38-39. The call to repentance and baptism is in the singular. In other words, Peter is saying that each individual is called to repent and be baptized to receive forgiveness of sins. But the promise, “You will receive the Holy Spirit,” is in the plural. In other words, the Spirit is given to the community of which an individual is called to be a part. The Holy Spirit is not a power to be used for our own. He is the power we do not have to live. We can do no good apart from the Spirit. We can bear no fruit apart from the Spirit. He empowers the community through individuals. And part of the given work of the Spirit is to make us witnesses to the risen Christ. It is the Spirit Himself who makes us Christian. Without the Spirit, we do not belong to Christ. The Spirit marks us as Christ’s own. It is the Spirit who baptizes us into Christ’s Body. The Holy Spirit separates us from the world and unifies us in the sure hope of an eternal inheritance. It is only as each of us lets the Spirit come to expression in word and deed as a member of the body that the body grows towards the maturity of Christ.
The Holy Spirit has been given to us. No gift of the Spirit is lacking in this body. The Spirit has equipped us fully to do what God is calling us to do. It’s just a matter of whether we are submitting ourselves to His power and His plan. Are we aligning ourselves with His gift, or are we quenching the Holy Spirit? Are we still trying to do things on our own? Sometimes we attend church to keep what we've got and add a little more. We disregard anything in worship that challenges us to cast aside our self-interest and shift our loyalties. Make us feel good the way we are! Patch us up so we can return to the life we've chosen! Perhaps this is why what occurs in Acts 2 doesn't happen in our churches. But it could! The promise and person of the Spirit has been given to us. God has equipped us fully and completely.
The Spirit is analogous to the wind for good reason. The Spirit will not be tied down to definitions or conventions or institutions or formulae that we dream up. The Spirit is free. The Spirit can be unpredictable. We don’t own the Spirit, the Spirit owns us or “possesses” us. We are possessed by the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit is good. If we are willing to surrender to that power, we will experience the freedom that Spirit offers. In being bound to the Spirit, we become truly free to be all that God intended for us to be. Just as we are promised that if we pray for wisdom, God will grant it, we are exhorted in Scripture to be filled with the Holy Spirit. God also loves to do this! Although we have received the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit never leaves us, we can quench the Spirit. If we refuse to submit to the Spirit, the Spirit in humility does not always force us to comply with God’s right to ownership of us. But if we desire to be filled with the Spirit, and led by the Spirit, then God is happy to fill us and lead us.
May we live as Spirit-filled people of God.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wait on the Lord--Acts 1

“Patience is a virture. Possess it if you can.
It’s seldom found in women, and never found in a man.”

I learned that little rhyme in 8th grade. I can’t remember what it came from, but it was in some piece of literature. It’s not quite true, but it IS hard to be patient. Americans don’t like to wait. We search for the shortest line in the grocery store. We complain that fast food isn’t fast enough. We instant message because email takes to long. We text because it takes too long to write out whole sentences. We speed because 55 is too slow.
I hate the time it takes for my computer to boot up. I think it’s too slow. I can scrub half a bathroom while I’m waiting. I can’t stand to watch regular tv anymore because I’ve gone so long without it. I hate having to put up with commercials. It’s hard to be patient. This impatience has contributed to our sense of entitlement. Delayed gratification means little in today’s American life. This is part of what fueled our recent economic troubles. Everyone was buying on credit, because we want it now. We don’t want to save up until we actually have enough money to buy what we want because the reality is, we might never save up! But the fake money comes to an end at some point, as we have seen.
We aren’t the only ones who have difficulty waiting. It seems the disciples were too. From the Ascension to Pentecost was just 10 days, but the disciples were impatient. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high, until they received the promise Holy Spirit. They did well at first. They went back to Jerusalem. They devoted themselves to prayer, because waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing. To wait upon the Lord is to continue in what He has shown you until He shows you something different.
But Peter starts to get antsy. Judas has committed suicide, and Peter thinks it’s time that Judas was replaced. He uses Scripture to justify his opinion. He suggests 2 very capable, well-qualified men to take Judas’s place. Both of these men, Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus, and Matthias had been with Jesus and the apostles from the time that Jesus was baptized by John and even witnessed the ascension. They were probably among the 70 that had been sent out. They were faithful. Then it says that the gathered believers, 120 minus the women, because Peter only addresses the men at this point, prayed that the Lord would show them which of these men was to be ordained apostle. This prayer seems rather perfunctory. Again it’s something we’re guilty of. We have a session meeting today. The Book of Order says that every session meeting is to begin and end with prayer, as well they should. But too often prayer becomes an agenda item to check off instead of a time to really listen and align ourselves with the Holy Spirit. Or grace before meals. It can become the same kind of thing, or the Lord’s prayer, or bedtime prayers. Paul, however, will reinforce later in I Corinthians chapter 2 that wisdom comes not through persuasion but from the Spirit and that one receives that wisdom of the Holy Spirit as one waits upon the Lord. In verse I Cor. 2:9 Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and have not entered into the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” Isaiah originally said, “For from of old they have not heard nor perceived by ear; neither has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.” Paul uses the strongest verb for love—agapao—that unconditional, God-given love, and equates it with waiting on God or longing for God. Now it’s not like the disciples didn’t love God, nor that we don’t love God when we are impatient, but we show our deepest love for God when we wait for His wisdom and direction.
Now I know Scripture is abbreviated. Luke can’t give us every detail of every thing that happened. He doesn’t say if they waited hours or days for the Lord’s answer. Regardless of how long they waited, it wasn’t the duration that Jesus had commanded. They had not yet been filled with the Holy Spirit. Does it mean that they didn’t wait long enough to receive an answer from the Spirit? I don’t know. Certainly the Holy Spirit has been at work all along. The Spirit worked all through the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. The Spirit was in the business of endowing wisdom long before Pentecost, so maybe they did really receive the Spirit’s answer.
And to receive that answer, they cast lots to see which one was God’s pick. Notice that they didn’t hold an election and vote. They really wanted to know the Lord’s will. They appealed to Jesus who knows all men’s hearts. But again, they asked God to bless their actions instead of waiting on God’s timing. And again, it’s something we too are guilty of. “God, show me what you want me to do,” and then go through our own forms of divination—lists, charts, coin flipping, getting our friends opinions, etc. To the apostles’ credit, casting lots was sanctioned by the rabbis as a legitimate form of decision making. It was used by the priests beginning all the way back with Aaron. In Leviticus 16 when God gives the process for observing the Day of Atonement, God says, “Aaron shall take 2 goats and set them before Yahweh at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats—one lot for Yahweh, and the other for Azael or the scapegoat,” which would be sent out into the wilderness.
These are God’s words. He told Aaron to cast lots. It seems like the apostles did the right thing after all. Yet, this is the last time that decisions were made by casting lots by the apostles. This type of activity isn’t recorded in Scripture beyond this incident. The apostles aren’t doing anything obviously wrong or sinful. In the same way, the things we do seem right when we have to make a choice. Sometimes our friends advice can help us see things from a new perspective. Sometimes lists and charts help us to organize our thoughts. But sometimes, God just wants us to wait. Luke himself in recording this incident makes no judgment as to whether or not these were appropriate or inappropriate actions.
Although Jesus personally chooses Saul to be an apostle, Paul never counts himself as one of the twelve; rather Paul compares himself with the twelve. And Paul is clear about his own calling, which was apostle to the Gentiles. And once James, son of Zebedee, one of the inner 3, brother of John, and the first of the 12 to be martyred dies, he is not replaced. James, brother of our Lord, becomes the head of the church at Jerusalem, but he is not considered as being on of the 12. Matthias is never again mentioned by name in Scripture. However, according to the early church father Clement of Alexandria, Matthias went on to serve Christ and teach as an apostle. Whether or not Matthias was rightly ordained apostle by men, he was a follower of Jesus and God used Matthias and served through Matthias, just as God does with anyone who surrenders to Him. And he was indeed counted an apostle. Look at Acts 2:14, “Peter, standing up with the eleven.” Matthias is counted as one of the 11. He too is filled with Spirit on Pentecost and speaks in tongues. Acts 6:2, again this is before Saul’s conversion, “The 12 called together the whole community to elect deacons.” Matthias is considered one of the 12. Perhaps his is one of the names on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. There were far more than 12 apostles in all, but clearly he is considered one of the 12 by the early Christians. Did Peter and the apostles rightly go about filling Judas’s slot or not? Our text doesn’t say or even imply one way or the other. That which seems to be impatience may not have been. We do know that God blessed it anyway, and that God’s will was ultimately accomplished. In reality this text really says more about God’s grace and mercy than about right and wrong ways to make decisions. Remember that this is the Lord who knows the hearts of all people.
In the same way, God is gracious enough to work through even our hastily, impatiently made decisions, working all things out for good—that good being conforming us to Christ. God blesses our perfunctory prayers. God works through our charts, friends, and even coin flips. God is the knower of our hearts as well. One of my favorite songs by Christopher Williams is called “Never Wrong.” Christopher uses the metaphor and imagery of being lost on a dark, back road, trying to get home with people telling him go this way, no go that way. The chorus says, “Am I lost soul? Do You watch me where I go? Is there something I don’t know? Am I right where I belong? Maybe these mistakes are never wrong!” He comes to the realization that he’s really not in control anyway, and if he surrenders the control he thinks he has, then it’s “never wrong”. He says in the bridge, “I’d rather not know where I’m going, and trust that You will show the way.” Seek the Spirit’s wisdom, and wait upon the Lord, and you will never be wrong.

Question: Do you think the disciples were right in choosing Matthias? Does being “right” matter?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

You Are Witnesses--Luke 24:44-53

Each gospel has contains a great commission. Most of us are probably most familiar with the one in Matthew, the last 2 verses of that gospel. In fact, the purpose of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus was to commission. He commissed the women first to go and tell. We read a few weeks ago how Jesus commissioned Peter to feed and care for His sheep. The disciples on the way to Emmaus went back to the others—going and telling. Jesus didn’t simply want to convince the apostles personally of the resurrection, but to make them witnesses of the resurrection and heralds of salvation to all the world. The news was intended to be spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Luke especially emphasizes that the resurrection is essential in establishing Jesus as Messiah. David Tiede writes, “Those who perpetrate violence and murder do not have the last word, and the reign of Jesus is established as the Kingdom of God.” This is the message we have also heard again and again in the Book of Revelation. Jesus emphasizes that His story is all throughout the Old Testament, in the Law, writings, and prophets. My professors and teachers said that Christ is on every page of Scripture if we have eyes to see. The early church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, said the same thing, “If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling.” That new calling is our life in Christ. The disciples can now finally see and understand what Jesus had been telling them all along. They have been given eyes to see. They have been given, as the apostle Paul says, the mind of Christ. We too can understand Scripture with the mind of Christ.
What did the Scriptures say about Messiah? It was essential that Messiah suffer and rise from the dead. Isaiah 53 is an example of where Christ must suffer. We read this passage during Holy Week. It is familiarly known as the “Suffering Servant” passage. On Pentecost, Peter will preach using Psalm 16 saying that it speaks of Christ’s resurrection. In addition repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the Messiah is to be proclaimed to all nations. Christ’s death was necessary for us to obtain the forgiveness of sins. Isaiah 49:6 speaks of Israel as being a light to the Gentiles. The good news of Messiah was never intended to be kept just for the Jewish people. It was always intended to be for everyone. The Jews were chosen to live and carry the message, and now we are too.
Just like with the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus closely links forgiveness to repentance. Have you ever thought of repentance as a gift of grace? I’m sure everyone thinks of forgiveness as a gift. But what about repentance? Think about it. You now have the power not to sin and to turn from sin to God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of the power of God working in you, you can choose not to sin. Since the fall, humans have not had this capability apart from Christ. Before the Fall Adam was capable of not sinning, but since the Fall, tendency toward sin is our natural inclination. Scripture describes us as being “slaves to sin.” But Jesus was incapable of sinning. But He became sin for us, so that we might not sin. We still sin, but now we can repent. It is a gift of grace that we can now choose to receive and do. Charles Spurgeon also speaks of repentance as a gift. He poetically says, “If repentance is ever obtained by the poor sinner, it must be found at the foot of the cross, and not where the ten commandments lie shivered at Sinai's base. Nature can bid you amend your ways, but it cannot renew your heart. No, you must look upward, sinner; you must look upward to him who is able to save unto the uttermost.” Calvin says, “The effectual preaching of repentance thus results in a true self-knowledge of our guilt and depravity, together with an apprehension of our need of regeneration (the impartation of spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead), and “The effectual preaching of forgiveness of sins thus results in a true knowledge of God’s justification (in place of our guilt), in freely declaring us righteous in Christ; and of God’s sanctification (in place of our depravity) in freely imparting spiritual life to us, and sustaining that life in us, by His Spirit.” Forgiveness of sins means that on Christ’s account we are freely deemed righteous and innocent in the sight of God. As with all of God’s graces, we receive them through faith, and as with grace gifts, we are called to practice them and to use them. Repentance is to be continuously lived out. Again, Calvin says, “If we would stand in Christ, we must aim at repentance, cultivate it during our whole lives, and continue it to the last. When God offers forgiveness of sins, God in return usually stipulates for repentance, intimating that His mercy should induce men to repent.” Or as Paul says in Romans 2:4, “Do you no realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
As the disciples were witnesses, commanded to begin in Jerusalem once they had received the Holy Spirit, we too are witnesses. Again, our faith is personal but not private. If we believe, we will proclaim. If we have experienced repentance and forgiveness, we will share that good news with others. The Holy Spirit compels us. Jeremiah the prophet tried not to speak, and he said the word of God was like a fire shut up in his bones. The last principle in CR says, “Yield myself to God to be used to bring this Good News to others, both by my example and by my words.” Jesus had the disciples wait in Jerusalem so that they could yield themselves to God to be used to bring this Good News to others. The Holy Spirit empowers us to go where we would not have gone and do what we would not have done. We are to begin in Jerusalem. We must live the gospel, believing Jesus suffered, died, and rose again so that we might repent and receive forgiveness of sins. We are to live a life of repentance and forgiveness, and we are to witness to the world that these things are true and available to them in Christ Jesus.