But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:1-5

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

When I was growing up, I would go over to my next door neighbor’s house and just walk in the front door. I didn’t knock. I didn’t ask if I could come in. I just went in. I would find Kenny either in his bedroom in the basement, or watching TV in the living room. It’s just the way things were. I just presumed that I could go into his house.

In somewhat the same manner many Christians today presume upon God, believing that we can just enter into his presence with little or no fanfare, or minimal trepidation. It seems quite the case for North American Protestant Christians. We belong to the church. We can simply go into any church and presume to be served a good sermon, a great choir, a comfortable pew, and a warm welcome. In fact, if we don’t find these things, we are prone often to complain about it.

What if, however, we were to take a different approach to entering into the presence of God and claiming a fellowship with other believers? What if we considered it a high privilege to call God, “Father,” and be welcomed into any fellowship of believers? We take for granted our equal access to God’s grace and easy acceptance by God’s people.

That makes it difficult for us to grasp fully the quandary and sincere debate that was to be had in Jerusalem over the entry of the Gentiles into the rule and reign of God. That God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles meant something. But just what did it mean? And when Paul and his company shared that Good News with the people in Jerusalem was it seen as unmitigated Good News?

Many years ago I was leading our church to become more inviting and accepting to people who were not yet part of our fellowship. Two reactions to our plans and the prospects of success stand out in my mind even today. At a leaders retreat our long-time church secretary said, “We don’t just want all these other people to come in here, do we?” She was literally afraid of the implications of that. She apparently felt threatened by having to deal with “all these people.” Another younger person (who was 16 going on 60) said, “Why can’t they (the people we were inviting into our church fellowship from outside the church family) become like us (first, before coming into our church)?

This was the question that would be put to the leaders in Jerusalem on the occasion of Paul and Barnabas’ visit there. What would be necessary for the new Gentile believers in order not only to be received into the fellowship of the believers, but even to be saved?

We might think this is a slam-dunk question, and that those who were asking these questions were petty and small-thinking. That may be true. It may also be important for us to watch carefully as this issue unfolds in the early church. While Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension with those who wanted to impose the Mosaic laws on the new Gentile believers, this would not be the last of those conversations. And apparently Paul and Barnabas thought this was important enough – and that those who were saying this deserved to be engaged in the conversation – that they spent the “no little time” it would take to talk this through.

They didn’t just throw up their hands in disgust and dismiss these Pharisees. But neither did they dismiss the new believers. Fellowship in the church is earned by Jesus, and not by our efforts or behavior. When we start there we are truly representing the heart of God.

Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. – Acts 14:24-28

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

The foundation of the Christian faith is the grace of God in Jesus Christ who offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to everyone who believes. Whether we point to John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:8-9, the Good News has to do with God’s grace to you and me, and all people. It is Good News indeed when we hear that our sins have been forgiven, that we have the gift of eternal salvation, and God’s favor.

But there is something even deeper about God’s love and salvation that will eventually work itself into the heart of the believer. It will begin to matter to us that others do not have this grace we have received. It will become important to us that someone shares the Good News with people, and that they repent and believe the gospel.

As time goes on, we may even pray for the opportunity to share the gospel with others. Even those who are not particularly gifted as evangelists will sometimes wish to tell a friend or family member of God’s love and grace. The Good News is good news for me, to be sure. But it’s good news to hear that others are being brought to faith in Jesus. This is evidence of God’s Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.

I see the joy and celebration of Paul, Barnabas, and the Christian brothers and sisters in Antioch. This was the church from which they had been sent. And when they reported that God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles the people there rejoiced. It was not only a homecoming, but also a victory celebration. It was also a celebration of God’s work through the church at Antioch and the missionaries whom they had sent.

We rejoice when we hear that Eric and Linda Funke in Tanzania have made a new inroad, or that our missionary team in Kenya experienced God’s favor in their work there, or that our connection with LINC ministries in Houston have borne fruit.

The Good News is for us, and we rejoice when we learn that others have received God’s favor, for that is good news to the heart of a believer.

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. – Acts 14:19-23

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

I have experienced only one time when I felt that I was in danger of being physically harmed by someone (beyond childhood fights and squabbles). I was a foolish 16-year-old and had irritated someone who decided he’d had enough. We were in our cars, and he chased me down onto a dead end street. I was pretty scared when he got out of the car and came menacingly in my direction. Fortunately he didn’t do anything but bluster. I was young and foolish – and graciously protected by God!

When trouble came looking for Paul and Barnabas on this occasion it did not back down. Nor did God protect Paul and Barnabas from grave harm. He had proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and had made an impact in the Jewish synagogues and communities. The men from Antioch and Iconium wanted to stop them from doing anything further to change their world or undercut their worldview. So they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, leaving him for dead.

Paul, however, is not to be intimidated or dissuaded from sharing the gospel. After going on to Derbe, and preaching the gospel there, he returns to the very places where he was attacked and troubled. He must have realized that the disciples in those places would need encouragement and bolstering of their faith.

His message is not a gospel of prosperity, but a reminder of God’s calling – even to the point of suffering for the sake of the gospel. The spread of the gospel by means of faithful servants teaches us that Jesus-style salvation is not about gold, glamor, and the greatness of man’s abilities. Salvation, Jesus-style is a call to faith in the One who entrusted himself to God perfectly and completely.

Jesus did for us: he obeyed perfectly and then suffered unjustly without losing faith in his Heavenly Father. His was the perfect faith. His righteousness and perfect faithfulness is ours through faith in him. Our faith will never be perfect, but our Savior is perfect. He is our righteousness.

Blessings and pleasantly-drawn lines may come and go. But God’s faithful servants will point us to the Good News of Jesus again, and again, and again. Thanks be to God!

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out,15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. – Acts 14:8-18

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

Have you ever tried to explain yourself to someone only to have them set aside your comments and continue on in their stubborn ways. It might be an issue of misunderstanding – a false conclusion about a word or event – about your place or responsibility in their pain. They blame you for the trouble you had nothing to do with. It could be an unwillingness to play by the rules: “I know I’m not supposed to take photos in here, but no one’s around and besides, you’re in charge of this area.” Or, “Surely it’s OK to take a few photos.” Or possibly even, “Yes, I know I shouldn’t put you on the pedestal; you’re just a mortal, but you’re so beautiful. I just want to worship you.”

It seems that Paul and Barnabas are in this situation with the people of Lystra. Paul and Barnabas did everything in their power to dissuade the people from worshipping them. They pointed people to Jesus. They gave glory to God. They refused to be identified as any kind of god whatsoever. But they barely persuaded the people from deifying them, and even offering sacrifices to them.

The temptations are two-edged in this regard. First is the temptation to take credit where it is not due. We can easily fall prey to the idea that we are hot stuff, and that we are doing what God is actually doing through us. The water needs the pipe to get to the faucet. But not just any water will suffice, while almost any pipe will do. We must constantly guard against believing that we are anywhere near indispensable.

The other temptation is the one to which the Lyconian people were falling prey. They saw the instrument of God’s blessing and confused the instrument for the Giver. That’s no call to undercut or diminish those who serve God’s purposes in our lives. But it is a call not to idolize even the most faithful servant. The world does indeed need a Savior – as my friend tells his seminary students – and he (the most famous, committed, and faithful servant of Christ) is not the Savior. That’s Jesus’ job.

When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that he is our Savior, redeemer, and source of life, forgiveness, and salvation. Any other one than Jesus will not sustain us nor save us. People who are put onto pedestals often become easy targets. Their shortcomings too easily become visible. Their limitations intrude. Not so Jesus. Faith in him will never be found lacking. He is worthy of all our praise.

Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel. – Acts 14:1-7

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

I am a big fan of Edwin Friedman, who applied family systems theory to church dynamics and leadership. Friedman’s mantra – according to me – is “Define yourself. Stay connected.” To which one might well add, “Maintain a non-anxious presence” which I believe is essential to the first two. In normal circumstances, this is a good bit of advice. Sometimes, however, and – under great duress – the non-anxious presence and staying connected part needs to be abandoned in deference to staying alive! Such was the case on this occasion with Paul and his companions. They had to flee from Iconium, rather than getting severely abused by the crowd.

During a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I was challenged by some of the other chaplains and the supervisor of the group, and accused of being defensive. When I shared that with a friend of mine (who was also a psychologist and counselor by training), he remarked, “Sometimes you need to be defensive.” I took that to mean that you don’t have to receive every criticism and disparagement at face value. Nor do you have to let people accuse you to the detriment of the Good News of Jesus or the truth of the Bible.

On this occasion Paul chooses to leave the people in Iconium and head to new environs with the Gospel message. They defined themselves as missionaries, people entrusted with the gospel message that was meant to be proclaimed to all nations. That was what God had in mind when he confronted Saul on the road to Damascus. Now it is unfolding, The work that God had for them (cf. Acts 13:1-3) was unfolding. They were literally on a mission from God and that defined them. They stayed connected with each other in that process – a vitally important tactic.

In that connection and identity as missionaries of God, they would do wonders. The church would be planted in various cities throughout Asia Minor and even ultimately into Europe. Their connection with the people who were being converted would be shown in bold relief when the time came for them to leave Ephesus (cf. Acts 20:17-38).

The life of an evangelist/missionary is not easy. Friendships can be hard to come by. But those connections with the people of any community offer opportunity to be part of God’s move into the hearts of more and more people. If we each would define ourselves as children of God, missionaries of his love, and stay connected with the people God brings into our lives, who knows how we might impact someone’s eternity.

Such a definition will serve us well, allow us to be non-anxious wherever we are, and stay connected through the love and mercy of God in Jesus. There is great leverage for the kingdom in such a posture.

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:

41 “‘Look, you scoffers,
    be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
    a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”

42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.  Acts 13:36-43

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

Two men of God have provided me with context and perspective to theology and Christian living. One was a seminary professor – with whom I may not totally agree today, but who taught me how to think. He drilled into issues of Scripture and would not stand for pat answers or trite truisms. He helped me and other classmates mine deep truths from the Bible.

Another is currently serving as a District President in a district of the LCMS. His gift was helping cast questions in their proper light and framework. Issues were not only about right and wrong, but about how we come to right and wrong, and how we understand the right and wrong we believe.

Both of these men are men of God, gifted, faithful, gracious, and challenging. But neither – great as they were – were able to offer forgiveness of sins. Neither could construct a system of belief that could be perfectly applied or lived-out. Neither are the Savior.

A good friend of mine teaches at the St. Louis Seminary. He is known to tell the men in his class who are studying to be pastors, “Gentlemen, the world needs a Savior. And you are not him.” Indeed; even the best man in the world – political leader, church leader, pastor, teacher, problem-solver – cannot sustain all things forever. They will all one day fall asleep. They will all one day be laid in a tomb.

Jesus, however, did a work that we must not ignore, lest we are confounded and miss the blessing of God in Jesus. On this occasion a number of Jewish people followed Paul and Barnabas, seeking to embrace the grace of God more fully. That is a great example for all of us: Never must we substitute even the best of men for the Savior of God.

“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead,31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

“‘You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you.’

34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,

“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’

35 Therefore he says also in another psalm,

“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ – Acts 13:26-35

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

An Episcopal priest friend of mine would make a joke about the priest who did not believe in either the resurrection or the authority of Scripture speaking the Apostle’s Creed thusly: “On the third day he rose again…[pause] according to the Scriptures” [with the italicized words spoken as an aside and in a tone of dismissive derision]. In other words, because he did not believe the Scriptures or that Jesus rose from the dead he would speak the same words as everyone else would speak, but with different inflection and meaning.

Paul, however, does not approach the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in that manner. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus becomes one of the key teachings of the New Testament Church, and the dividing point between belief and unbelief. Jesus’ resurrection was a scandal to the Greeks (who preferred to think in terms of merely the immortality of the soul), and a source of accusation against those who had put him to death. When it comes to evangelizing the Jews, Paul will use Scripture to prove his point.

He makes two points: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises recorded by David and others, and that promise includes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. As I consider the resurrection of Jesus, I land on two thoughts: we don’t have a hard enough time believing this truth (it ought to blow our minds!), and Jesus’ resurrection justifies his faith in God and entrusting himself to God in the face of his death on the cross. Jesus was justified in believing in God’s word and promise against all odds and, as he died, against all external evidence to the contrary.

Elsewhere Paul speaks of…

…the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, – Romans 1:1-6

Jesus resurrection is not only promised and testified about in the Scripture, it is the assurance that Jesus was in fact God’s servant and our Savior. This is a source of great comfort for sinners and confidence for saints.