Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 6

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Text: Acts 10: 34-48

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”’

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”

Again we return to Peter, that lovable/hate-able, bumbling fool who experiences the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the church.

Here, he has been sent to the family of a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who is said to be “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius, being a Roman, is obviously not a Judean. He’s a Gentile, specifically not of God’s chosen people. After receiving a vision from God, he sends for Peter to come and visit him.

Peter, meanwhile, has his own vision, a vision of ritually unclean animals he’s commanded to eat. Peter, acting as a proper Judean for maybe the only time in the Bible, politely refuses. The Law says hes’ not allowed to eat those, so he won’t. In response, a voice from heaven commands, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After visiting with Cornelius, hearing about him and his family and their visions, Peter launches into this speech, when he finally realizes that the good news of the risen Christ is indeed also for the Gentiles, the “unclean”, the outsiders. And just like with Philip in the Ethiopian eunuch, he finds nothing preventing them from being baptized and receiving the full grace of God. In fact, God seems so in a rush to get Peter to welcome these outsiders, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before they’re baptized! God is impatient when it comes to dolling out grace…

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace. Poor Peter has to be lit on fire, give speeches, and have visions before he gets it. Accepting those on the outside doesn’t come easily when one spends their entire life reinforcing the separation between the in-group and the out-group. But the way I see it, if even Peter can come to this realization, then with God, nothing is impossible!

Let us pray: Impatient God, you delighted in revealing to Peter your intentions for all people, Judean and Gentile, in-crowd and out-crowd. Delight in us as well, revealing to us the breaking down of the barriers that separate us. Come quickly Lord Jesus! In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Evelyn’s Baptism” by Robert Bejil is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 5

Giving up privilege is a difficult process. It’s a humbling process.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Text: Acts 9:26-30

“When [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”

It might seem strange to include Saul in a set of devotions dedicated to stories of outcasts and those on the margins experiencing the power of the risen Christ. Saul is the poster-child for the not-outcasts. By his own words in his letter to the Philippians, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He’s the cream of the crop, so it were! And as a Roman citizen, he’s granted an extra layer of enormous privilege, which he’s not afraid to leverage.

After his experience on the road to Damascus, Saul is in a different position though. Trying to leave his former life behind, he goes to meet the disciples in Jerusalem, and is met by fear. And rightfully so! He was a zealous persecutor of the church, and they have no reason to trust him. All of a sudden, Saul finds himself on the outside looking in.

Giving up privilege is a difficult process. It’s a humbling process. How wonderful if would have been for Saul if, when he went to Jerusalem, the disciples had said, “Saul, you’ve changed! Welcome to the club!” But that’s not how it works. Saul is treated with contempt, mistrust, and suspicion, and has to earn their trust. Threats are made on his life by multiple groups and people because of his preaching. Only then, leaving the privilege of his old life behind, is he able to fully know what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

We Christians enjoy an enormous amount of privilege in our country. This is especially true for those who are white, male, heterosexual, and cisgender. That privilege can be a powerful tool—Saul used his privilege whenever he could to advance the good news of the risen Christ—but it is also a barrier that separates the privileged from the outcast.

We don’t have to have a Damascus Road experience to recognize our privilege. But will we use it to further God’s mission and the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ, taking us into uncomfortable places? Or will we use it to shield ourselves from the difficulties of life experienced by those God loves?

Let us pray: God of reversals, you took Saul, a persecutor, and flipped him into one of the most important and compelling missionaries in the history of Christianity. Give us the courage to lay down our privilege and experience life “in the trenches” alongside those who need your grace the most. In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Privilege” by Stephen Dann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 4

Not even being a eunuch, a sexual outcast, prevents the Ethiopian from receiving the full grace of God.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Text: Acts 8:26-39

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”

The Ethiopian figure is a curious one. He appears to be at least a God-fearer, since he’s on his way back from Jerusalem and reading the prophet Isaiah. Maybe he’s someone who’s devoted himself to following the Judean God as best he can. But this Ethiopian can never be granted full access to Judaism or the temple—not because he’s of a different ethnicity, not because he doesn’t understand scripture (we’d all be in trouble if that was the case), not because he’s a foreigner. It’s because he’s a eunuch.

Because of his sexual status, the law in Deuteronomy explicitly forbids him from ever being a full member of the assembly in temple. “His kind” were not welcome in the house of God. He is forever an outcast because of his sexual status.

That makes Philip’s work that much more important. On the one hand, Philip doesn’t acknowledge the Ethiopian’s sexual status. But on the other, neither is his sexual status a barrier. The answer to the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” is a total and emphatic, “Nothing!” Not even being a eunuch, a sexual outcast, prevents the Ethiopian from receiving the full grace of God.

Church tradition says that this Ethiopian eunuch, named Simeon Bachos, returned to his home country to preach the good news of Jesus Christ that Philip had taught him. His sexual status, which once prevented him from being a full participant in his faith, is no longer a barrier to being an apostle, a leader, a preacher.

Sex and sexuality continue to be hot topics of discussion in the church. While we anticipate a clergy shortage, we still have a significant number of non-heterosexual and transgender pastors unable to find calls, as well as women and people of color. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a reminder and a sign of hope that we too can grow in our understanding of the gifts of all God’s people, whether they are like us or not.

Let us pray: All-encompassing God, when your people said ‘no’ to the Ethiopian eunuch, you said ‘yes’, choosing him to be an apostle to his people regardless of his sexual status. Lift up those whose sexuality and gender differ from our own, whatever that may be, and tear down the barriers that separate us, that we all may work together for the sake of your Gospel. In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “gay priest” by annaspies is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.