Monday, April 29, 2013

Common Conversion

The story of Lydia's conversion in Acts 16:9-15 actually includes a number of parallels to the story of Cornelius' conversion which I preached about last week. Just as Peter's journey toward Cornelius began with a vision, Paul makes his way to Philippi, where he meets Lydia, because of a vision. Like Cornelius, it seems likely that Lydia is a gentile but one whom Luke describes as being a worshiper of God much as he described Cornelius as being God-fearing and devout. Like Cornelius, Lydia is the head of a household that is converted along with her. Lydia also offers hospitality to Paul and his traveling companions after her baptism, just as Cornelius did for Peter. But for all that commonality, there is one glaring difference: Lydia's story is really plain and uninteresting!

Luke's telling of Lydia's story is just downright commonplace. Think of the dramatic gift of the Spirit to Cornelius' household. Consider the controversy that followed when Peter returned to Jerusalem. There is none of that in Lydia's story. And it is not for lack of opportunity for such controversy. Could Luke not have made a bigger deal out of the fact that Paul's first convert in this city was a woman who was the head of her own household (and perhaps even the head of her own business)? Such a woman would have been an anomaly in the ancient world to say the least. Surely there should have been some controversial discussion about whether or not the Spirit could really work in this way just as there had been with Cornelius' conversion. But Lydia isn't even the most discussed woman in this chapter! Immediately following on the heels of Lydia's story is the story of a slave girl who has an evil spirit that causes her to proclaim to anyone who will listen that Paul and his companions are servants of the Most High God. Paul casts out that spirit which leads to them being thrown in prison. The dramatic story of their release from prison by an earthquake follows, as does the conversion of their jailer and his whole household. By comparison, Lydia's story seems plain and ordinary.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a less interesting story in the entirety of the Acts of the Apostles. In a book filled with miracles, dramatic conversions, exorcisms, riots, imprisonments, conflict, and shipwrecks, Lydia's story actually stands out for all of its plainness. Its unexceptional quality is the exception. Yet Luke still finds her story important enough to include in his account of the early church.

We love stories of dramatic conversion; the addict, the criminal, the hopelessly lost now found. And with good reason. They are exciting and it is encouraging to see how drastically God can change someone's life. We love these stories at least in part because they are the exception to what it otherwise often very predictable human behavior. But I think Luke's conservative and restrained telling of Lydia's story reminds us that just because the story of an encounter with Jesus isn't dramatic doesn't mean it isn't a story worth telling.

Lydia's story is a simple one. The Spirit opened her heart to the word Paul was sharing, she responded by being baptized, and then demonstrated faithfulness in that response by offering hospitality. This is the story of so many Christians. In many ways, it is my own story. There is even an argument to be made that it is the story on which the church at Philippi, possibly Paul's most faithful congregation (if his letter to them is any indication), is built. Given that Lydia was Paul's first convert in Philippi and that she was able to offer hospitality to him and his companions, there is a decent chance that she hosted the church at Philippi in her home. There is a decent chance that her leadership in that church was the very reason why Luke included her in Acts. In that case, her very simple story would be one of faithfulness begetting faithfulness. Such is the story into which we are called to live as the Church.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scandalous Spirit

What Peter is suggesting in Acts 11.... actually, what he has already done and is now suggesting the rest of the Church should accept is nothing short of scandalous. We see as much in v. 2 when Peter arrives in Jerusalem and some of the believers there begin to criticize him saying "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them."

Why is this a point of criticism? God had called Israel to be holy and much of that holiness had to do with being separate and recognizably distinct from other nations. Israel did that by keeping God's law but in the first century three points in particular had become important identity markers for the people of Israel: circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food laws. These served to separate Jew from Gentile, the holy from the common. Food laws, in particular, had a very divisive social impact since they not only prohibited one from eating unclean foods but also from eating with those who ate unclean foods.

So when Peter not only goes to the house of an uncircumcised man but also stays with him for several days (Acts 10:48), it is not a minor infraction. Peter has done something that most faithful first century Jews would see as violating the very essence of what it means to be a faithful Jew. Peter has undercut Israel's covenant with God. Thus the very serious accusation against Peter in v.2.

Peter responds to this accusation by speaking of the Spirit's leading. He tells them how he was in the city of Joppa praying when he fell into a trance. In that trance he saw a vision in which a sheet was lowered from heaven with all kinds of animals that were considered unclean by Jewish law and a voice from heaven said "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." Peter responded as any faithful Jew would saying "Certainly not, Lord. I have never eaten anything unclean." But the voice responded from heaven, "What God has called clean, do not call common."

At the same time, some men showed up from Cornelius' house looking for Peter. Cornelius was a Roman centurion. Luke describes him as a devout man who feared God and gave to the poor but he was a gentile, nonetheless. Peter went with the men who had come for him to Cornelius' house. Upon arriving at Cornelius' house and hearing how Cornelius had been directed by an angel to send for him, Peter realized that this was the fulfilling of the vision he had seen. Since Cornelius and his household were gentiles, Peter would have considered Cornelius and his household to be unclean just like the animals he had seen in his vision. However, he now recognized that God was declaring them clean so Peter began to preach the gospel to them. Before Peter could even finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit filled these gentiles just as the Spirit had filled Jesus' Jewish disciples at Pentecost. Peter sums up the story by saying "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"

Like so many of Jesus' actions, its hard for us to grasp just how radical this movement of the Spirit is in this story. After 2000 years of predominantly gentile Christianity, it is all too easy for us to forget that Jesus was Jewish, his message was Jewish, and all of his first disciples were Jewish. This was a Jewish movement for the Jewish people. Perhaps those first disciples envisioned that a few God-fearing gentiles like Cornelius might join in but in order to do so they would have to become Jewish. That is, they would have to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, and avoid unclean foods. God had called Israel to these holy practices and there was absolutely no reason to think that God would expect anything different.

At least not until God's own Spirit did something different. When Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, God didn't wait to give the gift of the Holy Spirit until those present were circumcised. The Spirit filled them even as they continued to be gentiles. The Spirit of God acted in a completely new and completely unexpected way. And Peter says, "Who was I to stand in the way?" And those who had accused Peter "...fell silent. And they glorified God, saying 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.'" These first followers of Jesus knew that what had happened was strange and unexpected. It went against some of their most central convictions about what they believed it meant to be God's people. Yet they couldn't deny that God's own Spirit had acted and they knew that was more important than any law or expectation they had. They allowed the Holy Spirit, not their own expectations of what was holy and unholy, to rule the Church.

Doesn't a story like this make you wonder what the Spirit wants to do among the Church today? We have so many notions about what church is, how it should work and what it should look like. Do you ever think that maybe the Holy Spirit wants to do something completely new? Maybe even something that cuts to the very heart of our convictions about what it means to be Christians? Something that would shock us? We Nazarenes, especially, have a lot of ideas about what it means to be holy and unholy. Could God being saying to us "What God has made clean, do not call unclean"?

I suspect there are a number of households like Cornelius' in our community. Ones that don't conform to our notions of holiness but where there are God fearing people among whom the Spirit of God is already working and they only need someone who will see and acknowledge that work in them. The question for us is whether we will be blinded by what we expect God to do or whether we will see what God is, in fact, doing.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Annual Report 2013

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

            Our reading from Hebrews this morning says that it was “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” This verse characterizes so much of Abraham’s story. The story of Abraham is the story of a journey with God; a story of following God’s leading; trusting that God knows the way even when Abraham does not.
            Abraham’s story resonates with me tremendously because my own spiritual life has become such a journey. I have come to believe very strongly in the very simple idea that the Spirit is leading so long as I am willing to follow. That leading of the Spirit has taken me on a journey around the eastern half of our country; first from Virginia to Boston and then to Kansas City. It is that same leading which brought us here to Clinton. For 6 years, our respective journey’s, yours and my family’s, have coincided. It has truly been a blessing to walk this path with all of you for the last six years and so it is with sadness but also with trust in the Spirit’s leading that I announce to you this morning that the time for our paths to diverge has come near.
            I was recently informed that I was accepted into Boston University’s Doctor of Theology program in New Testament studies. As a result, our journey will be taking us back to the Boston area and we will be leaving Clinton some time this summer. I want to tell you a little bit about how God has led me to this point but before I do there are a few things I want you to know.
First, I want you to know how thankful I am to have been your pastor over these last six years. I feel like calling it a blessing isn’t really adequate to describe just how grateful I am to have been your pastor and how appreciative I am of the way you have cared for my family in the time that we have been here. Being your pastor has changed me. It has made me a more complete person and a more faithful follower of Jesus and for that I am eternally grateful. I will never forget that you took a chance on a 25 year old fresh out of seminary with no pastoral experience and that you were patient with me as I learned my way and discovered my own pastoral identity. You have had a tremendously significant role in the formation of that identity. Your influence on me in my time here is something that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Second, it is important to me that you know how deeply I have been committed to you. I want you to know in all the time that I have been here that I’ve never considered leaving for another church, never sent out a resume, never looked to see what else was available. I have been dedicated to being your pastor. Jess and I have always felt that it was the Spirit of God who led us here, not mere chance. We believe that same Spirit is now leading us once again.
Along those same lines, it is extremely important to me that you know that my time as your pastor was not a means to some other end. I know that pastors, myself included, are not immune to ambition and that sometimes pastors can use churches as a stepping stone to something else; a bigger church, a higher position of leadership, or whatever the case may be. Some of you have even indicated to me personally over the last several years, in the most gracious and complementary of ways, that you expected great things for me and that those things would one day lead me away from here. I imagine even now, as I am announcing to you that I will be pursuing a doctoral degree, that it may have the appearance of going on to “bigger and better things.” I want you to know that is not how I see it. I won’t deny that this is something I’ve desired for a long time and I also won’t claim that God told me this is what I had to do. I believe very strongly that God has opened this door for me but I also believe it is my decision to walk through that door. However, I will say with great confidence that my criteria for making this decision has always been about whether or not this was the best way for me to serve Christ and His kingdom. A number of things have happened over the last year which have convinced me that it is. But I want you to know that it is not as if I knew this is where I was headed all along. My time as your pastor has not been a stop on the way to something else. I have thrown myself as fully as I know how into being your pastor, given it everything I have known to give it, given you all of myself I knew how to give in the time I’ve been here. Far from being a mere stepping stone, I have regarded you as partners and co-travelers on this journey together for the last 6 years as we have sought to follow Jesus together.
With that in mind, let me share with you my own testimony this morning of how the Spirit of God has been leading me lately. As I said before, whether or not to pursue a doctorate in New Testament studies is something with which I’ve wrestled for a number of years. Ever since college, I’ve had a number of professors tell me they thought I was capable of such work and I always thought it was something I would enjoy. However, given the immense amount of time, energy, and resources it takes to complete such study, I wanted to be as certain as possible that this was my place in God’s kingdom. So even as I continued to pray and think about it, I committed myself to the task to which I knew God had called me; being your pastor.
Some of you may remember that in the fall of 2011 I went back to Kansas City for two weeks to take a class at seminary. It was around this time that I was finally beginning to give up on the idea of a doctorate. I was beginning to feel like I had been out of school too long and that the path back would be too difficult. While I was in Kansas City for that class, I spoke with one of my former professors who I knew would give me his honest opinion about whether or not this was something I should pursue. We had a lengthy conversation but what I remember most about that conversation was a sense of urgency.  My former professor reiterated to me that he was confident I had the ability to complete doctoral studies but he felt that it was important I do so sooner rather than later.  At the time, I felt that meant the decision was made; that the door was indeed closed.  I simply wasn't at a place where I was ready to leave our church. It felt as if this long-wrestled-with-decision had finally been made.
In the midst of those autumn months, in this time when I had basically given up the idea of doctoral work, I received a phone call.  It was on Halloween night of all nights and it was our District Superintendent, James Spruce.  Dr. Spruce had mentioned to me before that he thought I should keep further study open as an option and he began to reiterate that sentiment as a part of this conversation.  At first, I thought this was simply a passing comment as he was making his way onto his "real reason" for calling but I eventually realized this was the reason.  Right in this time when I thought this door was finally closed, here was my District Superintendent, who knew nothing of what I have mentioned above, calling me on a random week night to say nothing other than that it was not time for that door to close.  
This caught my attention.  It was very much like my call to ministry.  This was someone speaking directly to what I was wrestling with even though they didn't know that I was wrestling with it much as others had said to me "Have you ever thought about being a pastor?" when they had no idea that was exactly what I had been thinking about for months.
I started praying about it... a lot.  I couldn't stop thinking and praying about it...again, much like my call to ministry had completely consumed my thoughts and prayers.  And the more I prayed and thought about it the more I felt like this was the direction the Spirit was leading. I started to see my conversation with my former professor differently.  Whereas I had seen it as a "No" now I saw it as a "Hurry up and get on with it." Since that time, there have been so many little confirmations along the way. The most significant of those confirmations came just last week when I not only found that I had been accepted into Boston University’s School of Theology but that the scholarships they would be providing were far more than I had anticipated or even imagined was possible.
Last Sunday, so many of you shared how God has been faithful to you. This is my testimony to you this morning concerning God’s faithfulness. I’ve said often that when I look back over the course of my life I am nothing short of astounded at where God has brought me. I marvel at how God has taken an often shy and timid kid and made him the husband of an exceptional woman, the father of three amazing children, and the pastor of a congregation of such wonderful and faithful people.. It is far more than I could ever deserve or even have imagined. And now God is providing and promising anew. Overwhelmed is one of the few words that even approaches adequately describing how I feel.
It is for that reason that I have complete confidence that God will also remain faithful to this church; to all of you. God’s love and faithfulness is already being demonstrated in and through so many of you and I know that it will continue to be. Sunday after Sunday for nearly 6 years now, we have proclaimed together that “We are called to be a community that is a faithful image of God’s love” and I say “Thanks be to God” because there are so many ways that calling is becoming a reality among us. I believe the future of this church will be brighter than its past so long as you continue to dedicate yourselves to that calling.
In fact, I believe that the words of the prophet Haggai that we heard in our time of worship together just a few months ago are appropriate for a time such as this. “Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all the nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’”
Finally, I want to say this morning that although the day will soon be here when I will no longer be your pastor, I hope that doesn’t mean we can no longer be friends. I hope that you will give Jess or I a call from time to time or send an e-mail to let us know how God is continuing to build his kingdom among you here in Clinton. I trust that you will get on facebook to see pictures of our children as they continue to grow. Most of all, I hope that you will pray for us fervently for years to come as we will for you. The path ahead for my family and I will not be an easy one. We will covet your prayers just as we have in the time that we have been here.
It has been such a gift from God to me to be your pastor and I know that it will be just as much a gift to continue to be your friend. May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause His face to shine upon as you serve him faithfully for many years to come.