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Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then, calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner. – Acts 9:36-43

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Photo taken at The Flower Fields, Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

I recall attending a concert at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas at which Itzhak Perlman performed. Perlman is a world renowned violinist; one whose presence and performance is unparalleled in the orchestral world. I remember saying to a total stranger that night, “I think this is the most famous person I have ever heard perform.” Itzhak Perlman was and is a true superstar. We paid a premium price for the tickets to that concert, and it was well worth it. He played beautifully.

You might list any number of people whom you would rate as highly-famous superstar types. In his day, Peter was one such a superstar – together with Dorcas, the woman who had died and who Peter raised to life. These people are larger than life to many people. Their impact was so profound that Peter was sought out at the time of Dorcas’ death.

In the end – after Peter restores her to life – the widows and saints are called together to rejoice in the work of God. It is remarkable to me that the effect of Peter’s healing, the impact of Dorcas’ death and restoration is sufficient for a special call out to these other two groups. When they come, we are told that many believed in the Lord.

Christians who are called to extraordinary works of mission, grace, healing, or service will seek to point people to God, not themselves. I’m sure that when Dorcas got up, she had her handiwork put away: “No more fuss for me,” would have been her commentary. “This is Jesus’ work. I do what I do for his glory.” Peter, too, would not wish to be the focus of anyone’s worship.

When people do great things and point others to God, it takes away the penchant toward envy. Widows (the least secure or strong in society) and saints (those most dedicated to Jesus) alike will be emboldened to look to Jesus and seek his favor. Perhaps they will even focus our hearts on God’s goodness and move us to dedicate ourselves more fully to God. For Jesus is the source of healing, hope, life, and salvation. Those who look to him rejoice in his goodness, grace, salvation, and eternal love shown to saints, widows, superstars and all who believe in Jesus.

Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. – Acts 9:32-35

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Another tractor which caught my eye. Photo taken at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

It might be as simple as a run of bad experiences with a certain brand of clothing. It could be as major as a complete loss of trust with your doctor. Sometimes it’s a visit to the doctor and the words, “You’ve got diabetes.” It can be a real turning point. Often they are brought on by more negative events: illness, loss of job, breakdown of a relationship.

But once in a while these turning points come as a result of a very good turn of events: you meet Mr. Right. You get a large promotion and pay raise. You discover that you are an heir to a fortune of which you had no previous knowledge.

Such is the case in these few verses from Acts 9. Peter encounters Aeneas and brings God’s healing power to him. His life is changed. He’s standing upright. His future is not to be lived from the sickbed any longer. God has come calling in a dramatic way.

Whole towns can be changed by these turning points. In this case it was Lydda. When the people there saw Aeneas healed and well, strong and upright, they were amazed. They turned to the Lord. Their outlook was changed because Aeneas’ outlook was changed.

I wonder what we might examine more closely that would yield a new outlook toward God ourselves. Have we seen someone’s life changed by God’s intervention and healing? Have we overlooked some great work of God in a friend’s life and failed to grasp the extent of God’s grace and how it is meant to turn us to God?

God works in people’s lives not only for their own good, but for the good of all people. His desire is to bring us close to him, to ground us in the truth of Jesus Christ and the grace of forgiveness. When we see him at work in others, we do well to turn to him in thankful faith.

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him,25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. – Acts 9:23-31

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This has nothing to do, per se, with the message of today’s blog – which is most often the case, but this time so obvious because it’s not a flower photo. But I love things like tractors and “things” which catch my eye for reasons I cannot immediately say. Photo taken at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

I have a very special afghan blanket that I received as a Christmas gift some years ago. It has the words of the Lord’s Prayer woven into it, and I find that blanket to be very comforting – especially when I’m not feeling well, or in some way needing comfort. I love the Lord’s Prayer in and of itself. I believe that Jesus’ words there embody a full and rich breadth of our relationship with God and one another, and form a deep foundation for prayer in general. When, furthermore, I am needing the extra comfort of God’s mercy, love, and help, I find it so very calming literally to “wrap myself in the Lord’s Prayer.

That thought was triggered by the interesting phrase in Acts 9:31, “…in the comfort of the Holy Spirit…” the church multiplied. Interesting: the comfort of the Holy Spirit is connected to the multiplication of the church on this occasion.

Certainly that is in part true due to the terrible and dramatically-close encounter of the followers of Jesus in Damascus who had been threatened by Saul and those who wanted to put an end to the church. If their chief persecutor was now neutralized (to say the very least), they could enjoy a time of peace and no longer cower under threat of Saul and his ilk.

Notice, however, that this comfort of the Holy Spirit is shaped and held along with the fear of God. It reminds me of Martin Luther’s explanation to the Ten Commandments, in which he explains the first commandment in the simple but powerful words, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Then he begins each succeeding commandment’s explanation with the words, “We should fear and love God so that…”

Comfort that is not held in check by the fear of God is a formula for an impotent and eviscerated, form of faith that has little need for the true comfort of God. For in that mode, the only need for comfort is that of returning to our comfort zones, not for God’s abiding presence, courage, comfort, strength, and enlightening in the midst of the messiness and challenges of life lived outside our comfort zones for the sake of those who do not know Christ, or simply to be in the world but not of it.

Fear-less Christianity is Cozy Religion to which God has not called any of us. God’s comfort is most comforting to those who fear God and seek to follow Jesus every day of their lives. The comfort may come in a confidence in the face of persecution, or the ever-present need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. In the fear of God we may also say, “Thanks be to God for his enduring grace, comforting presence, and for people like Saul who spent his life bringing the message of Good News in Jesus to more and more people.

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. – Acts 9:19b-22

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There are those who say that they have no trouble with Jesus, but that their beef is with the church. They say they love Jesus, but not those who call themselves Christians. It’s tantamount to saying that the church is too full of hypocrites. One person offered a snappy reply to such an observation: “There’s always room for one more!” Ugh.

But think about it. If you’re really wanting to follow Jesus you will have a heart for sinners. You will not withdraw even from the self-righteous hypocrites, for Jesus would talk with them regularly – albeit in a confrontational mode, for they needed to be warned, and called to repentance. So to say you love Jesus but not his church is a dicey dance to say the least.

Jesus loves sinners, and he’s shown that in the conversion of Saul, the role of Ananias in bringing Saul to a place of restoration, and now in Saul’s ministry of advocating for Jesus among those who would deny him, or his message.

That takes two forms here in this section: One is the process of confounding those who deny that Jesus is the Christ. Some people make Jesus a do-gooder, a prophet, a teacher of love – but not the Savior of the World. Some make him a religious charlatan and a fraud. Saul had once thought the same, but his encounter and Ananias’ ministry had changed his heart. Now Saul’s rich wealth of Old Testament knowledge was overflowing in new clarity: it’s all about Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of all that God had promised through the Old Testament prophets. Saul is now confounding those who say otherwise. This was his work among the Jews.

Saul is also saying that Jesus is the Son of God. This is his work among those who don’t bring a strong Jewish sensibility and ethos into their worldview. Jesus is not just some religious figure. He is the Son of God.

Perhaps you know someone who thinks little of Jesus. That one well should hear that Jesus is to be taken quite seriously. Some may think that Jesus is important and good, but not the answer for all our spiritual needs. That one would do well to learn why Saul is confounding those who would dismiss Jesus in this subtle manner. Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ – the One anointed by God to be Savior of the world. He reaches out to all people with the grace of God and the truth of his word.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. – Acts 9:10-19

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Petunia blossom at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, CA | Photo taken March 2017

When it comes to salvation by grace through faith there is no one who quite as clearly lays it out as does the Apostle Paul. He is relentless: Salvation is by God’s grace alone, apart from works of the Law (Romans 3:21-28). He makes the point again: We have been saved by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So how is it that at his conversion God says, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” You might think there is a conflict here: it’s either salvation by grace through faith, or it’s suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name, isn’t it? How is it that Paul – who will suffer greatly for the sake of Jesus’ name – is the champion of justification by grace through faith? Paul suffered shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, opposition, false accusations and even opposition from within. His life is a fulfillment of Jesus’ words: he suffered for the sake of Jesus’ name.

All this was made possible by God’s grace at work initially by means of striking Saul blind and revealing himself to Saul. It was made possible further by Ananias’ intervention, healing prayer, and gift of the Holy Spirit.

Being saved does not transport us immediately to heaven. God converts us and makes us new so that we may walk in newness of life. He brings us into his rule and reign so that we may serve him in everyday ways. It may be providing the food for a hungry new convert (v. 19). It may be a matter of praying for someone who is in need of God’s help. It might involve even great suffering for the cause of Jesus’ name.

Ask those who give themselves to such things. They will surely tell you it was worth it. Paul himself says as much at the end of his challenging yet dedicated life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. – Acts 9:1-9

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The altar and chancel of Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles, MO. June 2017

I can think of a few people who take their faith, politics, and values to an extreme that is uncomfortable to me – to say the least. The fanatical right or left-wing politician. The over-the-top religious fanatic. The we-don’t-eat-anything-that-can’t-be-eaten-with-a-spoon, (and neither should you!) food cop: I feel no great need for their company or influence. Oh how I wish they would experience a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment!

My motives for God’s intervention, however, are not about lessening the aggravation-factor of a misguided and bull-headed religious fanatic. God is not just frustrated with Saul’s antics and disappointed with his plans. Nor is God merely anxious about Saul’s plans to persecute the followers of Jesus.

All those are important and valid reasons forGod’s intervention in Saul’s plans and interruption of his travels. God will throw Saul to the ground. He will strike him blind. He will speak a powerful and theology-shaping message to his heart. He will set things in motion that will yield not just a dramatic conversion, but an ultimate reorientation from persecutor of the faith to a missionary and servant for the cause of the faith he was trying to destroy.

From this encounter will come a way of speaking about the church that Paul will use as he writes to the church in Corinth and which we use even today. Paul will refer to the church as the body of Christ. Perhaps that is because of this encounter: Saul was persecuting the church, and Jesus himself says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Persecute the church and you persecute Jesus, for the church is the body of Christ.

Jesus loves the church and will protect his people. He desires all people be saved. He will send Saul on missionary journeys, and people will be saved, and churches will be formed, and the body of Christ will grow and God’s good will will be done.

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:34-40

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This rose was growing in the garden area of Blanchette Park in St. Charles, MO. June 2017

I use a teaching tool to speak about baptism: BoB, the Blessings of Baptism. I make the point that God’s word puts the blessings of baptism into the water of baptism, and faith receives those blessings and makes them our own. These truths are more than a teaching tool for me and our family.

When our son was born – 8 weeks premature and weighing 3 #, 12.5 oz. – the blessings of baptism took on new significance. When it became necessary to send him to a specialized children’s hospital in another town, I wanted to baptize him and did so while he was in the neonatal ICU. Once he was baptized I knew that there were promises attached to him, that prior to that moment had not. It was a moment of monumental relief and confidence.

When Philip tells the Ethiopian eunuch the Good News about Jesus he must have included the Good News of God’s grace and promises in baptism. The eunuch asks if he can be baptized.

The New Testament means of “sealing the deal” in regard to the conversion of someone is baptism. In baptism God puts his name on us. He claims us as his own. He promises forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and says (cf. Acts 2:38-39) that those promises are for all people – including children, and those far off (Ethiopian eunuchs?).

The deal has been sealed now with the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip has served as God’s instrument to bring another into the rule and reign of Jesus. These two will now separate: one will go on his way to his home. Another will find himself in another place and continue to preach the Good News of Jesus on his way to Caesarea.

Thirty-three years ago, after I baptized our newborn son, I went on my way, back to the church I served and led worship and preached the Good News to the people there. Our son went on by ambulance to the hospital. We connected later that day. He is now a healthy 33 year old man, and I am thankful for God’s gifts and Blessings of Baptism.