Monday, July 26, 2010

Standing Together in Boldness--Psalm 2, Acts 4:23-37

Today’s New Testament reading continues from last week. Remember the Sanhedrin said that Peter and John could go free, but they most not teach or preach anymore in the name of Jesus or there would be consequences! John said that they had to obey God first and foremost. Interestingly enough, the opposition to preaching about Jesus and in the authority of Jesus isn’t coming from the Roman government; it’s coming from the religious leaders.
Our church today is also being challenged from the inside out. Satan loves to destroy churches this way. Get Christians fighting among themselves and destroy their witness. We made it through another General Assembly. While there was much controversy leading up to the Assembly. The Assembly went remarkably well. Debates were brief, and some positive things were accomplished, but the church always remains under attack. After all, we’ve been arguing over the same things for 30 years! There are always those who will try to destroy it from the inside out. Will we give in to culture, or will we stand on the Rock, that is Christ Jesus?
The church in Acts chose to stand with Jesus. First of all, they prayed. They prayed the promises found in Scripture. Jesus was obviously a good teacher. I’m amazed at how much Scripture the disciples memorized in such a short time. Now obviously they had learned quite a bit before Jesus. Last week Peter quoted from Isaiah. Here in his prayer, He quotes from Psalm 2, our other reading today. You have to know God’s word in order to speak God’s word. One of our biggest problems, one of the reasons we have difficulty discerning the will of God is biblical illiteracy. I was blessed in that I memorized lots of Scripture as a kid—4 or 5 verses a week. But I don’t see as much of that happening these days. Most of my generation and the one following are unchurched or minimally churched, not growing up in Christian homes and only coming to church later in life. We must be intentional about teaching the Scriptures, teaching the faith and discipleship. And we must as individuals embrace the spiritual disciplines. If you’ve never done it or don’t make it a practice, I would encourage you to pray the Scriptures. These are prayers that God will answer.
The apostles knew that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Messiah’s kingdom. Psalm 2 says that God will give Jesus the nations for His inheritance. Jesus will always win. In knowing that promise and yet also knowing the opposition they faced, they prayed for boldness to speak God’s word. They didn’t pray for deliverance from persecution—this was the first persecution they faced, and they sensed rightly that it was about to get a whole lot worse. They prayed for boldness. Remember when Henry was here, and he said he was struggling with how to pray for his friends who were new believers, and whose lives were being threatened? As much as he hates seeing his friends suffer, Henry knows that persecution can actually strengthen and grow the Church. We need to pray for boldness for the believers in Andrapradesh.
Last week in our affirmation of faith, we affirmed that the Church can’t go wrong as long as it stands on the foundation Christ the Rock. Psalm 2 reminds us that it is really Christ who is under attack, but Christ will win. Just as the early church was gearing up for a more intense persecution, I don’t think our world is going to change any time soon. It won’t change until Christ returns, and His kingly reign is made visible. We need to receive boldness to stand firm. It doesn’t matter about our size as long as we hold on to Jesus.
It doesn’t help to try to run away and hide. There are places in the Middle East—Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, that are actually worse off and more difficult than years ago, because the Christians chose to emigrate out of those areas instead of standing firm. Christians were a huge minority group in Lebanon for many years. It wasn’t majority Christian, but it was a large enough minority to have rights and privileges, but when those things began to be challenged, many Christians bailed. Now it is very difficult for Lebanese Christians. Egypt has a similar story. Now contrast China where the Christians face intense persecution regularly, yet if they are not already, China is about to become the world's largest Christian nation. The church is growing rapidly even in the midst of persecution because the believers pray for boldness to stand firm in and for Christ.
There are always going to be challenges for the church. We are called to stand firm in boldness with and for Christ. As Charles Erdman reminds us, “If we surrender to Christ with a whole-hearted desire to do His will in spite of opposition, peril, and hatred, we will have new courage and power in service brought about when believers come together to read Scripture, sing, and unite our hearts together in prayer.” And as long as we exist, God has a plan and mission for us.
Growing God’s church Deep and Wide is our denominational theme. For the past 4 years we’ve been working on the deep part and will continue to do so. I hope that over the next 4 years we will also begin to grow wider as we have begun to step out in faith in ministry.
If you try to grow wide without being deep, then people fall away or the church becomes a social club. Willow Creek realized this a few years ago when they realized that they had a large church, but few mature disciples. People weren’t able to articulate their faith or share their faith with others even after years of attendance. Instead of transitioning into discipleship groups, the majority of new folks dropped out. New ones always cycled in, so it took awhile before the leaders realized that spiritual growth wasn’t happening. The church seemingly made converts without making disciples, but the commission that Christ gave was to make disciples. In fact, Jesus criticized the religious leaders of His day for making only converts. He said, “You travel over land and sea to make 1 convert, but I tell you that you have made him twice the child of hell as you are.” Those are pretty strong words! Discipleship is key. This is what the Riverside church did. Instead of bringing in neighbors to a Christmas Eve service so the pastor could share a message, church members were able to share their faith with their neighbors themselves, because they had been discipled. This was the fruit of the first church plant I worked with in Japan. At the end of the 3 year church planting cycle, we had several mature believers who were sharing their faith with their contacts. I especially think of Mrs. Kazumata and her daughters. Mrs. Kazumata has a gift of evangelism. But before she started working with the church planting team, her practice was to bring people to the church so the pastor could talk to them. She became a chaplain for one of the English classes. We met in the church, so it was a safe place for Mrs. Kazumata to practice sharing her faith. You could see the deep joy she had in sharing her faith with the class. She would share personal stories of what the Scriptures she had chosen meant to her. Then she realized that she didn't have to be in the church to share her faith with people. She gained boldness to share her faith outside of the church walls. Now when she brings people to church, it is because she has already shared with them herself.
The pastor's daughter-in-law was one of the other chaplains. She is a gifted church leader. When I left, she decided to continue the ministry she had with the children, forming a Kids Club. She recruited and discipled Mrs. Kazumata's daughter's to help her. They in turn began discipling children in a variety of ways. These church members grew deep, and then their church began to grow wide.
Notice that the churches in the videos were able to step out in faith because they came together in unity. This happened after they prayed together. Prayer itself is a unifying factor. This is why praying together as families and married couples is so powerful. Prayer strengthens unity. The church in Acts received almost a second Pentecost, and the believers were filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. The command in Scripture to be filled with the Holy Spirit is in the continuous tense. We constantly need to be filled with the Spirit. The filling of the Spirit isn’t to attain personal holiness, but for power to be witnesses for Christ in the world. We then move in our Acts passage from the believers being empowered to speak God’s word with boldness to a narrative of how they came together in unity and held all things in common so that the needs of the believers were met. The church that welcomed the Liberian family gave up the way that they typically did worship to grow. The Greystone folks gave up their building. I like the way that at the end of that video, it quotes from our Book of Order that, “The church is called to undertake its mission at the risk of losing its own life.” That reflects the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for My sake will find it.” Our God is a God of resurrection. God delights in giving new life to the dead.
Jesus is still at work in the PC(USA), and Jesus is still at work in Grace Presbyterian Church. If we will remain faithful to Him, He will remain faithful to us. Will we stand together in boldness in and for Jesus Christ?

Monday, July 5, 2010

God & Country? (Romans 13:1-7)

The Scouts have a program called, “God and Country.” It’s a pretty good program, and even for some Scouts, their first introduction to faith. But what happens when God and country become too blurred? We begin to confuse the state with the Kingdom of God and often the values of the two are in direct conflict with one another. We use the God’s name to justify acts of oppression, aggression, and even terror. We tell people who aren’t patriotic that they aren’t good Christians. We exalt one culture over another, even degrading other cultures and peoples. We even exalt one party over another, saying one is more godly than the other and dividing the church over issues of politics that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, we have a call for separation of church and state. Interestingly enough, this phrase is not part of the Constitution. It comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote referring to the First Amendment. What the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What happens when God and country become too separated? We become apathetic and even antagonistic regarding government. We stop engaging in society and instead place ourselves above others or simply withdraw from them. We forget that although this world is not the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God has broken through in this world and it is our job to show it.
Our Romans 13 passage tells us how we are to interact with civil authorities. Paul begins by saying let every person submit him/herself to the higher powers. No one is exempt. And when Paul was writing this, we must remember that Israel was under an oppressive and hostile Roman empire. Yet Paul goes on to say that the reason we are to submit is because it is God who holds all power and who gives power. Regardless of what we think of our governing officials, they are where they are by the grace and power of God. They may abuse the power given to them, but they will be held accountable for that. Paul goes on to say that whoever resists power resists God and that God will judge those who resist authority. This stands in contrast to what we will see in Acts in a couple of weeks. Peter and John will not resist civil authorities, but religious authority. How do we reconcile resistance and obedience? When it comes to laws not in conflict with the Scriptures, we are to obey, but if a government practices or acts in ways that are unlawful according to God’s law, then we must obey God over human authorities. One of the positive things about our form of national government is that we can interact. We can work with and within the system instead of against it. Paul would never be for anarchy. We can write letters and make phone calls to help encourage officials to make laws in accordance with God’s Law and to the best of our ability and with the help of the Holy Spirit, vote against those who oppose God’s Law and vote for those who align themselves with God’s Law. This isn’t always easy because people deceive with flattering words. I find myself these days voting mostly against rather than for. Do we ask God what we can do to make our nation better? Rarely a week goes by when I’m not writing an email to one or more of our government officials or signing a petition—things from the democratic party, republican party or nonpartisan groups. Because it’s not about parties—everything must be weighed against Scripture.
In the same way that God judges those who resist authority, God will judge those who abuse their powers and positions of authority. Paul says that the purpose of civil authorities is not to be a terror to good works, but to curtail evil. Sometimes governments forget what they are for and try to meddle in other areas that they weren’t created and installed to do. They may be well-intentioned but misguided or only have short term eyesight and don’t consider long term consequences. And then I need to support actions that benefit the well-being of my neighbor and demonstrate good stewardship of all the resources we have been given by God. We also need to own up that part of the meddling in other affairs is our fault. If we believers did what God called us to do, the government wouldn’t have to. In our laziness and disobedience to God, we’ve neglected widows and orphans, immigrants, the poor, and the oppressed and allowed these things to become government issues. We’ve forgotten that the first hospitals, schools, and benevolence institutions were created by Christians, not by the government. If you are working in these fields today, good for you! These are important areas where Christians should be involved.
We are called to submit to civil authorities not out of fear of them and what they can do but out of obedience to God. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by fear. It’s what the world tries to do all the time. Governments are guilty. The news media is guilty, political groups are guilty, and even religious groups are guilty, forgetting that we are only called to fear God and nothing or no one else. We were talking in our Sacred Marriage class this week about words of encouragement, which led into a discussion of love languages. One of mine is definitely words. This is why it’s not too hard for me to be an encourager. At the same time, it’s made me very sensitive to hurtful words. Even if I agree with the basic premise of what someone is saying or the underlying principle, I refuse to support or endorse an issue or statement or participate in a discussion in which fear is being used as a tool of manipulation or personal attacks and straw man arguments are being made to enforce a point. I’ll either get angry or defensive or walk away or a combination of the above. My reactions aren’t always without sin either, but seeing people being manipulated by fear or intimidation does not sit well with me.
Both Jesus and Paul tell us we are to pay taxes. We need to support public affairs. However, again we are free to lobby against oppressive taxes, but when April 15 comes around, it’s time to pay up.
As believers in Christ, we are first citizens of the New Jerusalem. Our loyalty and allegiance is to God, and we are His ambassadors to the world. We are called to be in the world, but not of it. Being in the world means engaging our world. William Wilberforce considered leaving Parliament to become a priest. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, and that God could use him to do God’s work in that arena. We know that God used Wilberforce to help abolish the overseas slave trade and eliminate slavery in the British empire. Being an ambassor for God means carrying out His will in the world, working for justice and peace and righteousness. Do we pray for the presidents and government officials we don’t like as much as we do the ones we do like? I’m guilty. We have to remember that God is the one who ultimately places people in positions of authority, and God does so for a reason. .James Edwards in his commentary of Romans sums it up like this:
"Paul approached the relation of church and state not as a Sadducee, who lived from the advantages of the state, nor as a Zealot, who lived to overthrow the state, nor as a Pharisee, who divorced religion from the state, nor as a Roman citizen, who saw the state as an end in itself, but as a free man in Christ who appeals to the church to be equally free in obedience to the state, but not conformed to it."