Acts 8:26-40 Philip’s adventure in including the excluded

Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Philip knew that he needed to be somewhere else, and he went; I know that this is something that leads to memorable adventures, good stories, and sometimes more. When Philip felt the need to get on the road to Gaza, he didn’t know what would happen — but walked. Gaza was at the extreme southern limit of Judea at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This is about a 90 mile walk from where he started, so following this road to the end would take two days of walking from sunrise to sunset. Likely one would plan to take 4 days on this journey.

I love these kinds of adventures. I don’t know how far Philip walked, but I do know what he found on the way; on the way, he saw an Ethiopian court official in a chariot on his way home from Jerusalem, reading from Isaiah. When Philip saw the man in the chariot, he knew why he was moved to walk this road; the reason he started on this path was to talk to this man. Now, the Ethiopian was, just then, looking for somebody to explain the passage to him — this court official was impressed with the truth, and he was straight away baptized into the Christian faith.

Acts does tell us this African’s name, only where he comes from and what he was doing. Tradition tells us that his name was Simeon Bachos, that he was an Ethiopian Jew, and that he brought Christianity back to Ethiopia. Of course, other than the name, these little details can be guessed from the text. Who, other than a Jew, would travel to Jerusalem to worship? Who other than a Jew would be reading from the prophets as he returns home — and if he makes it back, how could he not take his new-found faith in Jesus with him?

This passage stands out to me, in context, because I notice a pattern in Philip’s mission. If you read the whole of Acts 8, you find that Philip is in the city of Samaria, preaching the gospel. We all know that the people of Judea hated Samaritans, and they were not welcome in Jewish society; but, in spite of this, there was already an apostle preaching there. Philip was reaching out to people who were considered outsiders to the Jewish community — and he was doing this before Peter was given a vision telling him to accept Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been an outsider in Jerusalem for several reasons. The first reason is that he was a Eunuch. What this means is that after his long journey to worship God, Deuteronomy 23 explicitly excluded him from the “assembly of the Lord”. I am not sure what this means, but, I do know that it means he could not enter the temple, and that he was excluded from much of Jewish society. The second reason he would have been an outsider is that he was by all definitions except one a foreigner — and, everything about his appearance would say that he wasn’t from around there. The third reason is, oddly enough, that he would have more in common with the Samaritans than the Jews. The Ethiopian “House of Israel” claim that their ancestors are of the tribe of Dan, which are part of the Northern Kingdom, one merely has to look at them to realize that they intermarried with the Gentile population — and the customs that formed there are different than the customs that formed by those who faced the Babylonian captivity. The Ethiopian Eunuch went to worship God, but everything about him said that he would leave disappointed.

But, something remarkable happened — God sent Philip to explain Isaiah 53 and tell the story of Jesus right when our Ethiopian friend was asking what it meant. Acts goes on to send Philip back to Samaria and Peter’s vision of the sheet. The message that I get reading this is that God welcomes those who are not always welcome. There is no exclusion based on race, national origin. At the same time, Acts tells us the story of Paul, how he was the enemy of the Christians, how he converted, and God’s call to the Christians to accept their enemy. The first half of Acts is the story of radical acceptance. Christians are called to accept those who have been excluded into their community.

The call that God gave to the early church isn’t an easy one, and it took divine intervention to teach the church to accept the unacceptable people. God led Philip to a man who was excluded from the assembly because of what had been done to his body, and he led Philip to baptize him, and invite him into the Christian community. God gave Peter a vision which commanded him not to call what God made clean unclean just before having Peter meet with the gentile Cornelius and shared the gospel with him. When God sent Paul to a Ananias of Damascus, again, God needed to send a vision to this Syrian Christian in order to tell him to accept Paul; because nothing is harder than forgiveness when there is something major to forgive.

We know that the church wasn’t persecuted because Jesus and the apostles taught them to pay their taxes, to do good to their neighbors, to work hard, and to obey the authorities in all things that did not stand opposed to God’s law. Some of the earliest literature of the church was arguing that Christians were good people to have around, because they worked hard, paid their taxes, and generally avoided trouble.

What did the church do that the state might want to suppress? What did the church do that countered the authoritarian culture that surrounded it? The church forgave, the church invited those who were excluded to join them, the church created community for those who were pushed away from community. When there is good news for the poor, the wealthy fear that it may be bad news for them. When we welcome those who are the culture’s scapegoats, the culture reacts in fear and anger. It is really no different today than it has always been; there still is a tendency to pass blame, and to stir up fear and hatred. The call of the church is also the same: We are the community of good news for the poor and the marginalized. We are a community of salvation made up of those who need saved. We are a community that offers hope to those who have given up on hope. We are a community built on the good news that God loves you, and your life matters.

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I Kings 5:1-14 — healing requires humility

Reading: 1 Kings 5:1-14

Of all the passages we read today, I’d like to focus on the one that tells the story of Naaman. All of these stories are familiar, as they are stories that we were told since we were children. These also tell what happened in a way that we can picture some details; we can, I might say, imagine what it is like to be soaking wet from river water.

The reason I want to focus on the 2 Kings passage is of the three, it is the one that has the most context to understand. We know that the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry, and the story is told both in full, and in context of the wider story. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is isolated; and scripture tells very little about him outside his position and that he was reading Isaiah.

In the story of Naaman, we know so much more. We know that Elisha was the successor to Elijah. We know that the king of Israel was Jehoram, son of Ahab. We know that Jehoram was an evil king, and we know that Jehoram had problems with his neighbors.

Israel was, for all its problems, an important power. At the time Jehoram became king of Israel, neighboring kingdoms paid tribute to Israel; but his reign was marked by a revolt of a client kingdom; Moab revolted, Jehoram asked for Judah’s help and Jehoshaphat of Judah sent their armies — and they defeated Moab.

Jehoram had every reason to feel distressed that Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. Verse 2 tells us that the Arameans had raided the land of Israel, and captured people as slaves, Israel was struggling to maintain their regional influence, and even after this miraculous healing, they would find themselves at war with Aram, and Samaria would suffer under siege during that war.

One more thing that stands out about the wider context of this passage is that Jesus mentions it as he preaches in the Synagogue of Nazareth. In Luke 4, Jesus reads from Isaiah, and the congregation’s response was: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Jesus then responded with the observation that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown, and tells the people that when Elisha healed a man with Leprosy, he didn’t heal any of the numerous people suffering this illness in Israel, but only Namaan the Syrian. Upon hearing this, the congregation was so angry, they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

When I consider this wider context, I see a story of desperation. I am not sure what illness leprosy is; I believe that it is a fairly generic term for illnesses that are chronic and disfiguring — that there are a number of illnesses that would be called leprosy, ranging from mostly harmless and non-contagious to deadly. What we do know is that there was a social stigma attached to it, and it is fair to assume that this stigma was not limited to the Hebrew people.

Now, what we see of Naaman is that when he hears that there is a cure for his skin disease, he goes to his king, and his king responds by putting together a significant gift for Israel, about 6 million dollars worth of gold and silver and a letter and sending Naaman to the king of Israel with a letter asking him to cure it.

Jehoram’s was reasonably afraid, because he didn’t have the power to cure leprosy, and this rather large payment and what he was paid to do made him think that the Arameans were looking for an excuse to start a war, and he went into mourning.

Elisha sent a message to King Jeroram telling him to send Naaman to him. Naaman went to Elisha’s house with an armed honor guard and Elisha told him to wash himself in the Jordan 7 times.

Naaman became angry, because he expected the prophet to do something — to wave his hands, or call on God for healing, but instead all he did was told him to wash in the Jordan river. Naaman protested that the rivers in Syria were better rivers, and that he could take a bath in one of those.

His servants responded by reminding him that bathing in a river was something easy — and that he would have gladly done any difficult task in order to be cured, and that he would do it without complaint. Bathing in the nearest river really was no hard task at all.

Of course Naaman did so, he washed himself seven times just as Elisha told him; and the text tells us that when he had washed, his skin was completely restored, just as the skin of a young boy. Whatever disfigurement the illness caused was gone, whatever scars may have come from skin ulcers were replaced with clean flesh — not only was the illness cured, but there was no signs that he was ever sick. The miracle was complete.

There are several things that I notice about this story — but the first thing that I notice is that Namaan had to humble himself to be healed. First thing he had to do was to listen to his wife’s slave who told him there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him. For a man of privilege to listen to a foreign slave girl takes either humility, or perhaps some desperation.

When Namaan went to Israel, he didn’t go to the prophet, but instead went to the king. When he was sent to the prophet, he came with an honor guard, showing how important he was; but the prophet, when he came in, humbled Namaan by sending him away without any ceremony, and telling him to do a simple and mundane task. Namaan’s servant observed correctly that he would have done anything, no matter how difficult, to find a cure — but, the mundaneness of the task was humbling. The fact that he came with an honor guard, and was sent away without so much as a prayer.

When I think about Naaman, I think about what might have happened. The man took a journey with an honor guard, 6 million dollars as a gift, and all the pomp and circumstance that one might expect from a state dignitary — and, whatever he expected he didn’t get it. Elisha didn’t go to the royal palace, but instead Naaman had to be sent to the house of a commoner. When he arrived, with his honor guard, Elisha didn’t even go thorough the level of ceremony one would expect him to give a common person — he saw that somebody important came, and sent him away to do something mundane. Naaman was angry, because he was sent off like Elisha wanted to get rid of him. There was no reason to believe that go bathe in the river Jordan would do anything more to clear up skin than telling somebody to go jump in a lake.

Our Salvation is much the same. It is humbling to admit that we need saved from anything. It is humbling to admit that we don’t have the resources to save ourselves, that our money can’t buy salvation, and that there is nothing we can do to make it so that we deserve it. What God asks of us really isn’t something that is hard, or extreme. Naaman simply was asked to wash himself in a nearby river. We are asked to repent and trust God to take care of everything else. Repenting is easy; it is no harder than regretting what we’ve said or done and considering how we could do better. Trusting God to take care of everything else is easy as well — so little is asked of us.

The hardest thing about Salvation is that we have to humble ourselves, and admit that there is something we need saved from, that we can’t take care of it ourselves, and that we don’t have the resources necessary to buy it. When I think of the doctrine of salvation, sometimes I think about Church as a Sinners Anonymous group. When I see the 12 steps, it reminds me of part of my experience as a Christian.

  1. Admit I am powerless over my sin, and that my life has become unmanageable
  2. Believe that a greater power can restore sanity
  3. Make a decision to turn over my life to God’s care
  4. Take a personal moral inventory
  5. Confess my sins
  6. Be ready for God to remove my sins
  7. Humbly ask God to remove my shortcomings
  8. List those people I harmed, and be willing to make amends
  9. Make amends, unless trying would bring harm
  10. Continue to take a personal moral inventory
  11. Pray that I may know God’s will and have the strength to obey it
  12. Evangelize others

This thought is humbling. When I think of church this way, every day that I go to church I’m remembering that I need God; I’m not a perfect person, and that without God’s help I really could make a mess of things, likely destroying what is precious to me like my relationships. It is also a humbling analogy, because it means by staying in church I’m admitting that I still need God. It is humbling to admit we need anything — and it is equally humbling to realize that when we get what we need, it really is not our accomplishment. We are like Naaman, who’s servant had to tell him — `you’d do something hard, so go do something easy.’ We swallowed our pride, and we are still here praying to know God’s will and for the strength to do it.

Revelation 21: no death nor mourning

Reading: Revelation 21

Most of Revelation can be described as events that happened in the late first century and, when I read Revelation, I strongly prefer that description. I really do like reading commentaries that suggest what item of late 1st Century history is described. The last couple of chapters cannot be described that way. Revelation 21 begins with the New Heaven and the New Earth, established, replacing the old ones that had `passed away.’

There are many things that I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that the world I live in has not yet passed away. I look around, and I can see that this isn’t exactly heaven — there is still something that we are looking forward to. The last chapters of Revelation are full of promise, they describe the hope that we have.

We have always looked forward to the promise of heaven, but oddly, our vision of heaven is imperfect. When hear people trying to describe heaven, it does not sound that interesting. When I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, his “Inferno” was engaging and memorable, but “Paradisio” was more than a little dull. I have, like everybody before me, great difficulty figuring out what to say about heaven.

I love the book Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, but there is no similar book that shows a discussion of the politics of heaven working to save souls. In the introduction of Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis observes:
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Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man — and he would have to be a far better man than I — could scale the spiritual heights required, what “answerable style” could he use? For the style would really be part of the content.  Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.

I find myself in exactly the same position as C.S. Lewis, and Dante, and everybody who tries to speak of heaven; I do not have the words, I do not have the style that breathes of heaven. As much as I strive to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is a place that I have never seen. Remember, when the Hebrews left slavery in Egypt for the promised land, they didn’t even want to finish the journey, because they could not imagine what it was like to be free.

Revelation 21 promises us that “Death will be no more; mourning and pain will be no more.” this is a great promise, and guess that it gave those who were facing persecution and death hope that they had something to look forward to beyond the utter powerlessness that they faced in life; but I also know that I live in a world where tears are very real. I know that death seems very close, and I know that my something in my soul cries rejecting it.

Right now, it seems that the whole world is in tears. I hear about one disaster after another. I hear about those who died in Mexico from the earthquakes, I hear about those who died in hospitals and nursing homes that lost power in Florida and Puerto Rico, I hear about people who are still homeless in Texas, and I expect that I’ll be hearing about disasters and suffering for some time to come.

As you know, the pastor of Valley Mills Friends recently learned she has terminal cancer, and she is currently in hospice care. Karla and I visited her yesterday; we’ve seen her several times since we learned of her condition. What you might not know is that when she was healthy, we’d meet for dinner most months. She was an ally to Iglesia Amigos, and was a big part of the vision for Valley Mills to host a Hispanic ministry. Marilee Gabriel is our friend.

I know every one of you has watched a loved one die; I know that Raysville Friends has a long history of funerals. I know that all of you know the basic truth that when things hurt, the right answers don’t make the pain go away. I know faith helps — but when we are not yet in the place where mourning, crying, and pain are no more. Mourning, crying, and pain is very much a part of the world we live in, and I am aware of this fact.

I also know that faith means that my grandfather was not afraid to face death. After he went to too many funerals, including his siblings, his wife, his son, his cousins, he was ready to go to his own; and while he wasn’t exactly praying for death to come quickly, he did make it clear that he was looking forward to being reunited with so many people he loved, soon. Knowing this did not make it easier to bury him. Mourning is something that must happen.

We must not mistake mourning and tears for a lack of faith. It is very hard to say goodbye, even if it only for a time. It is very frightening to face a major change, even if we trust the one who said that He goes to prepare a place. C.S. Lewis wrote two books that deal with theology, pain and loss. The first book he wrote was titled The problem with pain where he answered questions like: “Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why is there so much suffering?” When his wife died, Lewis wrote A grief observed where he shared his pain, his doubts, his despair; and how little comfort he received when he was given answers. He had already written a book filled with all the answers anybody could ever want, and then he found answers do nothing to cure a broken heart. There is no shortcut to mourning; not even the promise of a place where the cause of mourning ceases.

I think that mourning is one of the best proofs I have of heaven. There is something in the human spirit that rejects death. We not only have the promise of a place without death, suffering, and mourning, but we mourn as if death is a surprise to us. Nature shows us that every creature dies; yet there is something deep inside us that rejects every death. We seem to instinctively know that there shouldn’t be a place for death. Even after experience with death, we are ill suited for it; we continue to mourn.

We are given a promise that our hearts long for; but the promise that somewhere there will be a kingdom where these terrible things that our hearts reject as wrong does not change the fact that we don’t live there yet. We live in a world where pain, suffering, and death happen every day, and far too often they are happening in a way that touches us personally. I look forward to the promise I read, the promise that there will be no more mourning — but, for today, I see death and suffering; and I mourn.

Revelation 19:1-10 — True and just judgments

Reading: Revelation 19:1-10
I guess this is the second time that somebody was saying that the world would end while I was here — the last time, we were studying Isaiah — and the last time I told the story of Allen Jay and his father, back the first time he heard about the world ending — and his father Isaac telling him to do his chore of chopping wood, because they’d need the wood for the winter. Like Isaac, we can all say that we’ve seen the end of the world predicted many times — and each time, those who believed it was coming were disappointed; those who were frighted were frightened for nothing.

Another thing that stands out is that these pronouncements of the end of the world happen when we are looking at Christ’s throne in heaven. The week after the blood moon prophecy did not happen, we studied Isaiah 65, which is directly quoted in Revelation 21. This week, the day after the Jupiter-Virgo prophecy is supposed to happen, we are reading from Revelation 19. It is an interesting coincidence that these prophecies happen when we are looking forward to the coming kingdom — then again, maybe it isn’t. We are always looking forward to the coming kingdom. Our very hope is in the resurrection and that Christ himself has gone to prepare a place for us.

There are many things that I could talk about today, I could talk about John worshiping the angel, and the angel telling him to worship God instead. If this were last year, that is what I would most likely choose. I could talk about the marriage feast, and about how the Church is the bride of Christ. I could talk about worship, and about Christian theology. There are so many things that are worth talking about; but one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t talk about everything at once — is just too confusing, so I am going to choose the topic of justice.

When English speakers hear the word justice, they think one of two things. One thing that we might think is that justice is what happens to the person who is accused of a crime. Many people hear justice and feel that it means punishment. If these people feel that something was not just, they feel that this means that nobody was punished, and something happened where punishment was necessary. The most extreme cases are people who feel it is more important that somebody is punished than if the person who was punished was guilty of the crime. While I personally cannot see how punishing the innocent satisfies justice, I know that there are those feel differently.

Others hear justice, and they believe that the word refers to things being done in a way that is fair and in good order. They believe that justice is about protecting the people who cannot protect themselves, and make sure that they are treated fairly, so that those who are more powerful cannot take advantage of them.

When I read the word in the New Testament, I mentally change it to `Righteous’, which means that I read “His judgments are true and righteous.” One thing that I know is that the judgments that the Early Christians experienced were those based on slander, they were unjustly accused, unjustly arrested, and at times unjustly executed. For the early Christians, I am sure that the promise of just judgments was a promise that in Christ’s kingdom, thing would be better. We want nothing more than a justice system that is fair.

Fairness means a lot to me. There is something inside me that is annoyed when I see something that is unfair. I want to live in a society where things are fair; and one of the hardest lessons in life is that life isn’t fair. Even when nobody is trying to be unfair, life isn’t fair — but it sure is good to know that the final judge will be one who judges justly.

When I think of the context, I wonder who the judge judges. I know that when I was a child, I was told that the whore of Babylon was the apostate church, and its powerful institution. I was pretty directly told that it was the Catholic church; and this interpretation was common enough that one can find it inside the pages of a i Reference Bible or even in the Westminster confession of faith. Before the reformation, interpreters have named the prostitute Jerusalem, and later interpreters have refined the Jerusalem theory to suggest a political party that collaborated with Rome such as the Herodians or the Sadducees and Pharisees.

The Jerusalem theory is attractive because it is an ancient theory, and those who argue for it really do make sense. The Jerusalem theory also is strong because Jesus died in Jerusalem — and the people in power and Rome worked together for the Crucifixion. Furthermore, we see that the late first century Christians were suffering both from the negative attention of Rome, and from being thrown out of the synagogue. The conflict between the early Church and the Jewish elite was one of the major issues in Revelation. The promise that Jerusalem would face judgment from a just judge might have been comforting to those who were cast out of the synagogue. I am almost convinced, but not quite.

I have a problem with all of these interpretations, including the traditional view that it is Jerusalem because none of them make sense in context of the end of the first century. Jerusalem, and the politics of Jerusalem are no longer a relevant issue after the complete destruction of the city; it would still be some time before Jerusalem was rebuilt. I considered that maybe the whore of Babylon represented Jerusalem, and Jerusalem represented the elite of the Synagogue, but this makes little sense to me when John wrote earlier of the synagogue of Satan; why the double layer of code when John is willing to be direct in the first 2 chapters? I think I should look somewhere else.

As far as church leadership conspiring with Rome, and the church becoming effectively a tool of the empire, I must observe that at the time Revelation was written, the church was not in a position to even imagine making deals with Babylon. (I’m convinced Revelation means Rome whenever Babylon is written). I know that this was a reoccurring issue between from the fourth century until now, but in the first century the church was too week for the Empire to consider it a worthy ally.

I might not know what Revelation means when it speaks of Babylon’s whore, but I do think that the readers had a pretty good idea what he was talking about. Now that I’m 1900 years away from Christianity in Asia minor, I’d have trouble guessing what it could be talking about, but I do have a couple of broad guesses from what I know about the time.

My first guess is that maybe it is someone, or a group of somebodies who sold out their Christian community to Rome. If it were, I would suggest that it belongs to the group called the Lapsi. The lapsi were those who somehow sold out their Christianity in the face of persecution. Some of the lapsi gave names and information, others sacrificed to Roman gods or burned incense, others bribed a Roman official for the certificate saying they met their obligation, even when they had not actually burned the pinch of incense at Caesar’s altar.

If it is the lapsi, then I can tell you that one of the biggest arguments in the second century church was about what to do with those Christians who collaborated with the empire, in whatever way. The church split between those who felt that this betrayal was unforgivable, and those who felt that the gospel was about forgiveness — and even this sin could be forgiven; though trust did not come as quickly as forgiveness. I personally find it ironic that the father of Western Christianity, who’s writings still influence the Western church Tertullian was also condemned as a heretic because he was opposed to forgiving the Lapsi.

In 250 AD, after Tertullian death, Cyprian created a procedure for rehabilitating Lapsi into the Christian community. Depending on the nature of the betrayal, rehabilitation of status in the church could take anywhere from 2 years to only fully rehabilitating a person’s status at the time of death for the worst of betrayals.

One reason I like this idea is that it suggests an application to us. I believe there are still lapsi in the church. Not only do I believe there are lapsi, but I believe that we’ve come to an age where the Church no longer condemns them but instead raises them to places of leadership. The lapsi were those who betrayed what Christians believed, and offered their pinch of incense to Rome. The lapsi were those who betrayed their faith for the good graces of the kingdom of this world. I think we should all be careful as Christians that we remember our faith; and we don’t throw away what we believe in order to better fit with a political party. For those, like me, who preach — we should be especially careful, because we are in a place where we could easily call evil good and good evil, trying for a little political gain.

My friend Jared Warner, pastor at Willow Creek Friends in Kansas City described it this way:

The whore of Babylon is the religious people who use the world and faith for personal gain. During the life of Christ, Jewish people used Rome to get what they wanted. In the age of the church, wouldn’t it be similar? Those who focus on themselves, not the actual church, but their own gain is over the kingdom of God.

I am only speculating; but I am speculating in a direction that might place many who are in the church, including Church leaders before Christ’s throne. I know that I’m speculating in a way that means many in the church will face Christ judgment. The good news is, I know something about Christ’s judgment. Christ is more forgiving than we are. Our judge is the one who went to prepare a place. Our judge is the one who saved the woman caught in adultery. Our judge is the one who promises that while men judge one outward appearance he will judge from the heart. Our judge is the one who prayed for those who crucified him on the cross saying: “Father forgive them.” Our judge is the one who already forgave us our sin.

Now, I’m not saying that we should be careless in our faith — I’m saying that we should not be frightened to face the one who loves and forgives us completely and perfectly. In fact, our motivation to do our best should be a recognition of the love Christ has shown for us — not fear that we don’t always live up to the good name that Christ has given us. We should be careful because Christ loves us, and we love Christ as well. We all know that there are places we have fallen short — we also know that love covers a multitude of sins. In our relationships, we depend on this — but, just because we need our friends and family to forgive us, and we rely on them to do so does not mean we betray them because we will be forgiven. We must carefully examine our lives and our words and be sure that we remain faithful to Christ.

 

The lamb on the throne

Reading:  Revelation 5:1-14

The one thing that strikes me about the first century church is that it was completely powerless. Revelation is addressed to a church that is facing a great persecution. The first century church was filled with people at the bottom of society. It is addressed to Christians who were recently thrown out of the synagogue, they had caught the negative attention of Rome, they were blamed for the problems that happened in society. Christians were not just persecuted — but, in the stories that were being told about them, Christians were the villains.

Revelation is a letter addressed to the church in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. Every one of the seven churches are in major cities of the time; whether the regional capital, a major city of trade, an industrial center, or other traditional centers of power. The Roman Empire knew the names of these cities, and these cities were big enough to have the Emperor’s ear. Several of these cities had temples to deified emperors such as Caesars Augustus — two of these cities were so powerful that they suffered Emperor’s envy.

Christians remember the Emperor Domitian as the second great persecution. Many historians don’t believe that Domitian singled out the Christians — but whether or not he had Christians in mind, the Christians suffered greatly under his policies. Domitian decided to emphasize traditional Roman religion. He personally had a temple built to Jupiter, and he worked to increase the practice of worshiping dead Emperors. His first act as Emperor was to declare that his late brother Titus, the former emperor, was a god, and he had temple built for the worship of his father and brother.

Christians refused to participate in Emperor worship. They would not say Caesar is Lord concerning the living emperor, and they would not pray to the dead emperors. In many places, this meant exclusion from Roman society and a ban from trade. In some cases, it meant physical danger. Whether or not Christians were singled out, their lives were being destroyed by the empire — and their beliefs were not accepted by society. Christians had no power, and any power or wealth a Christian might have was quickly being taken away.

In Revelation 5, we see an image of the slaughtered lamb on the throne, in all trappings of authority. The lamb is called the lion of Judah, the root of David, the conqueror. The lamb had the authority to open the sealed document — a document that had a seal on it to show that it was not disturbed between the sender and the one receiving it; in other words a document that was written for the king’s eyes only. This picture in Revelation makes it clear that Christ is in the ultimate authority.

Now, there are different ways of interpreting this. One common way is to see that Christ’s throne is above all other thrones. We can easily quote Paul in a way that suggests that every king is under Christ, and they are, as political authorities, authorities to do good for the kingdom of heaven established on Earth.

The idea that the emperor is God’s agent on Earth is a pretty easy concept when the Emperor is Christian, and the state religion is Christianity. This was the dominant understanding after the 4th century throughout Christian Europe. It made sense, because you had a Christian king, and he was crowned king by a Christian bishop. The church clearly recognized the king’s right to rule.

This understanding is fairly popular in the United States as well; and why shouldn’t it be? Almost all of our presidents were publicly Christian, and Christian ethics are commonly discussed in congress when crafting laws. The inaugural prayer service has been a tradition since the founding of our nation; it is usually held at the National Cathedral, and it does give a sense that faith has a rather public role in our government. One of the first public actions of a president is to appear in a religious service that lasts for three and a half hours.

When Christianity is on friendly terms with the state, it is easy to picture the rulers as God’s subjects — who will be judged by God according to whether or not they governed according to God’s law. When we see the officials of the church and the officials of the state standing together, and the church blessing the state; it is hard to think otherwise.

The picture of Christ having the ultimate authority might not have had the same implications to the 1st century church. Things are very different now than when Revelation was written. One thing that stands out to me in this passage is that the lamb on the throne was slain. We have to remember that Jesus died on a Roman cross; Roman soldiers stood guard around his grave to make sure that he stayed buried — and when he rose from the dead, he conquered the act of Rome, and Rome’s military might. The picture of the Lamb that was slain, but still conquered isn’t a picture of Christ putting the emperor into power, but a picture of a Christ who’s power was far greater than the empire.

At this point, interpretation becomes difficult for me. I grew up with the idea that I lived in an effectively Christian culture, and everything that I saw around me supported this idea. There was also an idea that there were forces that were trying to reduce Christian influence from our world and culture — there of course were many stories that could be given as examples of this as well. I grew up aware of the culture war, and knowing which side was the right side.

On the other hand, I learned in history classes about all of the evil that was done by people who claimed to be God’s representatives on Earth. History taught me how much corruption was possible in a Christian nation — especially if people were afraid to touch the leaders that God supported, leaving it so that at the end of the day they were only accountable to God. Learning this part of history, I was somewhat skeptical of my own Christian nation.

Conversely, I learned about the evil done by secular nations. I learned about the viciousness of communist governments; as a student of Church history, I learned about how brutal the Roman government was for the first few centuries after Christ. I also learned how brutal society was. I learned about abandoning children to death, I learned about a world where only the powerful mattered, and where life was not treated as sacred. I also learned how Christian ideas seeped into culture and changed the hearts and minds of the people. I learned how Christian Rome eventually ended blood sports, I learned how people started making a real effort to care for the sick, and to save unwanted babies.

When I look at the difference between Christian Rome and Rome before Constantine — it is hard for me to regret that the Emperor became Christian. Even with all its rough edges, I prefer Christian Europe to pre-Christian Europe. I understand the challenge Christianity had in adapting to its new place of privilege, considering that the New Testament was addressed to a Christianity facing existential threats, living in a hostile world with an uncertain survival. I much prefer the world where the Empire and the Church are friends; I much prefer the world inhabited by great theologians trying to understand this new situation.

When I look at history and see all the ways the church has failed to be the church; ways where it represented the Roman Emperor rather than Christ, I see that when Jesus said he did not intend to establish a Kingdom of this world, the church won’t be successful at establishing godliness by using the government. The problem I see in history, including recently, is that Christianity can be distracted by political power, begin to compromise in order to hold onto that power.

Jesus taught us that he did not wish to build a kingdom of this world. Jesus did not want to be the emperor, Jesus did not want the church to become a political party — you see, the kingdom of heaven is lasting in a way that political parties and dynasties are not. The kingdom of heaven is not thrones, nor strong men but it is salt, it is light, it is mustard.

I think that the way that the Kingdom of Heaven changes the kingdoms of Earth is by changing everyday people. When we look to governments to change the world, we make a mistake. Governments can make laws, they can enforce laws, but they do nothing to change the human heart. Christianity started with a few powerless people; people who learned to have faith, and to live according to love, even when love is difficult. It started with a few people who had no power, but were willing to die for what they believed in — and who would do what was right, even when the world was wrong.

For centuries, innocent Christians died; people who were slandered, but who did nothing but good to their neighbors, and the known good character eventually defeated slander. Eventually innocence defeated false convictions. Eventually people sought to become more like the Christians — more Christlike — Christians were salt, light yeast, and eventually Christians were everywhere and changed everything.

I have come to believe that the way Christians change the world isn’t by changing governments directly. I believe that Christianity changes the world by changing something far more lasting — Christianity changes the hearts of the people.

Jeremiah 29:1-14 Plans to give a future and a hope

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

The words of this passage are very familiar to me. The promise that God gives God’s people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-12 KJV) is a promise that I often see on posters. These are words that many people keep coming back to, because they are words of hope.

I admit — when I see these words on a poster, they are separated from the context. When lives are comfortable, it is easy to look to the promise that God has a special plan for us — when our lives are hard, then these words are very difficult to believe. The words are most difficult to believe if they are given to us in the context of words that take away every bit of hope that we have.

When Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The leading people of Judah were taken away from their homes, and they were sent somewhere else to live. One of the communities where they were sent was Babylon — the capitol of an enemy empire that destroyed their homeland. These were not people living in a safe situation — these were people living in a place where they were surrounded by enemies.

Not only were they in a hostile place, but this letter was not actually the kind of letter that would bring hope. In order to preserve hope, the exiles were telling each other that this would all be over soon, that they could go home and rebuild. The exiles were putting on a brave face, and hoping to return home. Jeremiah the prophet sent them a letter telling them that the hope that they had was wrong — that they would die in a hostile land, never to see home again. This hope crushing letter is still something we keep going back to and quoting, why, because it says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This promise to people facing the worst news they can imagine surely is for us as well.

I don’t know what it means to live in a hostile nation. I don’t know what it means to have hope stripped away; I have never lived in exile, I’ve never lived in fear of the police, I’ve never felt that place where I lived was hostile just because of who I was. I cannot look back at my experience and know what the Jews in Babylon must have felt — especially as they had this bad news. My experience does not tell me these things, and my imagination isn’t quite good enough to tell how I would respond to these things; you see I imagine myself braver than I am.

The truth is, I stand here, and I realize that there are people in this room who can understand. Last month has been a tough month for you — and you are in my prayers. I know that some of you are nervous when you see police. I have learned that there are some people who use their little bit of authority to harass people. I realize that there are some of you who have face ICE, and have been to the immigration courts. I know that this experience is frightening, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Two weeks ago, I listened to our attorney General, Jeff Sessions speak. In his speech, he included a lengthy list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. This list included some fairly detailed descriptions that included names and ethnicity. When listening to this man try to demonstrate that Hispanics are a danger to the United States, I realized that this is dangerous. As Sessions spoke of local police forces refusing to protect the public from this danger, I feared that somebody might take up arms to protect his community from the brown threat. I know that Jeff Sessions was only talking about those who could be deported — but I also know that you can’t tell a natural born citizen from an immigrant by looking, and I don’t know anybody who carries around their birth certificate to prove citizenship. If your ancestors are largely Mayan, Inca, Aztec, or any of the other people who are indigenous to the Americas; you can’t change your skin. When Jeff Sessions mentioned the crime committed by a Guatemalan, and suggested that law enforcement refuses to protect the people from such criminals — it puts everyone of Mayan descent in danger — and considering that violent racist don’t really care to verify genealogy any more than they care to verify status, it puts everyone of visibly Native American descent in danger.

The danger that I speak of is something that I’ve seen in a community that is familiar to Karla and me. When we visit Kansas, one of the stops that I make is in Oletha; which is a quiet suburb of Kansas City with a Christian college. Several months ago, the President spoke of the danger of radical Islamic terrorism — and following that speech, somebody saw a couple Indians eating at a restaurant. The man pulled a gun on them, yelled get out of my country, and murdered them. He drove to another town, went to a restaurant, and asked to be hidden, because he killed an Iranian. Now, these Indians were not Iranian, they were not Muslims, and they were not terrorists; and they were here legally, working as Engineers for Garmin. Violent racists don’t care about immigration status — nor even getting nationality correct. If hate is a danger to electrical Engineers — it is a danger to everybody who can’t change their skin.

As I’ve been watching this hateful insanity, I’ve been learning that even those I thought would be sympathetic are not always. I’ve learned that doors that I thought would be are being shut. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that you are a community that can identify with the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that the story of an America that welcomes people isn’t always true. It breaks my heart to have learned this.

The thing is, the more you are like the Jews in Babylon, the more sure I can be that the promise is for you — the promise that God wants good for you and not evil. I know you and I both pray to Jesus, I know that we both hold onto the name were were given, Christian. I know that we are members of the same kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. You are my fellow citizens in Christ — this cannot change. Because I know who you are, I know that the hope offered in this promise is yours.

I also see that Jeremiah gives advice to people living in a land that is an enemy land. The advice that Jeremiah gave was to live — to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have families. He advised the people who lived in a hostile land to live normal lives in that land. This seems to be good advice to me, because what other choice did they have? What choice do you have? You have to live your life — the alternative is to die waiting for a chance to live.

Living life, and having your family live life though isn’t the only advice that is given. The rest of the advice is difficult advice: Remember this is advice to people living in a hostile city and nation!

Jeremiah tells the Jews living in Babylon to work and pray for the prosperity of the city — to work and pray that Babylon prospers. The advice is to seek good for your neighbors, and for the wider community, even if it is a hostile place filled with enemies. The reason Jeremiah gives is that “As Babylon prospers, so you will also prosper.” This really makes sense if you think about it. If you are going to live your life somewhere — you hope that it is a good place to live. If you live in the city, what is good for that city is good for everybody, so hope for that good.

Now, I would like to call on us to follow one part of the advice given by Jeremiah — stand, and lets pray. There is something that has been called a concert of prayer where the leader calls out prayer requests, and everybody prays. I have a few things to pray for — I will call them out, and wait as we pray. Let us pray together.

  • For peace and prosperity in the United States and Indianapolis
  • For President Donald Trump, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our congressmen and our judges
  • For governor Eric Holcomb, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our city government, our schools, and our civic workers
  • For those who are poor and those who are sick
  • For Iglesia Amigos

Message given at Iglesia Amigos de Indianapolis.

Revelation 3:7-13 — Closed doors and open doors

Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

We are continuing our overview of the 7 churches with Philadelphia. If you notice, the letter to Philadelphia does not condemn them for anything. The struggles that they suffer are mentioned, but there is nothing but love and compassion for this struggling church. If our church were to get a letter, I hope that it would be such a letter.

For those of you who were in Sunday school, you have learned that the city of Philadelphia was a city that was one prosperous but now faced struggles. The video we watched talked about how the city was devastated by an earthquake, and then the Emperor Domitian ordered them to destroy the local vineyards so not to compete with the Italian Wine industry.

In addition to that, they mentioned something that had become a continuing theme in these letters to the churches; the argument of whether or not Christians were a Jewish sect. This argument had been going on for some time, and historians disagree on whether or not this argument had yet been resolved. Some say that a clear decision was made about 85 AD, but there is evidence that there were synagogues that included Jewish Christians well into the 2nd century. By 98 AD, however, the distinction was clear enough that Roman law did not include Christians as Jews.

This process of separation, which by this point had been going on for about 40 years, was a hard process to say the least. I know a little bit of the pain of seeing doors closed — especially doors that at one point very familiar to me, but can you imagine going to your place of worship, and being told that you are no longer welcome? Can you imagine the doors of your church being closed to you? I know the language in Revelation is a more harsh than we find acceptable now; but, at the time it was a personal hurt — when the synagogue doors were shut, the Christians were separated from not only the pagan community, but the community that worshiped God as well.

Historians estimate that at the end of the First Century there were thousands of Christians, most likely less than 10,000 — this number comes from assuming that Christians grew at a consistent rate until Christianity became the main Roman religion in the fourth century. Even if we are to guess that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation is the number of Christians, this would be a tiny fraction of the 60 million or so people who lived in the Roman empire. While the best we can do is guess — there is no number I can guess that makes getting closed out of the synagogue anything less than isolating.

What is the promise given to those who are faithful, even when they are cast out, and it is made clear that the world has no place for them? What promise is made to people who now see the doors of both the synagogue and the Agora shut, isolating them from both the world of faith and the world of business? “These are the words of the one who opens and no one will shut.” I see much hope in this introduction; I see the promise that Christ has an open door for the marginalized.

In some ways, we can imagine what was going on; Many of us have had an experience where we were shut out of somewhere that was familiar and safe. If we have, we have a guess of the hurt that was going on. Personally, I’ve been very lucky — I’ve been more the type to observe shut doors than to have them shut on me. When I experience closed doors, it is generally because I choose to spend time with those who see the doors shut on them.

You know that my heart is with people who are shut out — it always has been. My earliest memory of disappointment with the church was when I saw friends that I invited were less than welcome. Right now, my heart is with a group of people who are being reduced to a political argument. Last month was not a good month to be involved with Hispanic ministry. Just last week, a man involved with Iglesia Amigos was picked up by ICE, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, his wife was released with an ankle bracelet. Just a couple weeks ago, Jeff Sessions demonized the Hispanic community by reading a list of crimes, connected with Ethnic backgrounds — it does not make it easier for a community of brown when the nation is being told by high government officials that brown people are criminals, and dangerous to the community. Next Tuesday, we suspect that a group of documented immigrants; the minor children of undocumented immigrants brought here, but later given permission to live and work here might find that when their work permits expire, they will not be renewed. We fear that people who have no memory of living anywhere else will become criminalized.

It is hard for me to walk with members of a marginalized community, because there are some doors open to me that, in order to enter them, I must leave them behind. It is distressing when we see doors that were once opened closed; especially when there are people who we saw as friends on the other side of those doors. Last month has literally been the kind of month where optimism has become dispair.

Yet Christ came to Earth to bring the gospel to the marginalized people. Christ preached good news to the poor — Christ is the one who sets before us an open door that no one will shut. The more time I spend with people who see doors closed, the more I realize that these words are good news for the desperate. The kingdom of heaven is made up of the faithful Christians of Philadelphia; who entered the door Christ opened while all those other doors were shut. Jesus came with the message that God accepts those that society calls unacceptable. With Christ, all the divisions we make no longer matter, because Christ tore down all those walls that we build.

The hard part of this gospel is that we are called to love those that Christ accepts. We are called to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, where those walls that were once so comfortable are now torn down. If Christ opens a door — we must let people enter that open door instead of trying to block it. Sometimes good news for the marginalized means a call to work for us. I remember reading a sermon where the preacher was telling the congregation they shouldn’t be a welcoming church — he made it clear that this wasn’t because they were welcoming the wrong people; but it was because they were no longer an inviting church. Welcoming is much easier than inviting; a sign next to an open door is welcoming. Inviting is showing people who are desperately searching for any open door that there is one open too them. Inviting is letting people who are marginalized know that the gospel is good news for them. Inviting is going to the lost, and leading them to Christ’s open door. This is the gospel — and as people of God’s kingdom, the gospel is our work.