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.

Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ – Acts 13:13-25

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Yellow Rose of The Flower Fields | Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

Diane and I just enjoyed a delightful conversation with a young couple from our church. They had some questions about the Lutheran perspective on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as other issues of the Christian faith. Throughout that conversation it became obvious that we were looking at things from two different perspectives. To some extent much of the issues at stake were merely a matter of perspective. Some were more substantive. But we all agreed in the most essential of truths about God, Jesus, life, and salvation: Salvation is God’s free gift for the sake of Jesus which we receive by faith. We also agreed that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace for which we are thankful. But our perspectives were different, and they shaped our questions and our answers.

In these verses from Acts, we see the missional perspective in bold relief. Paul and his companions are literally “on a mission from God.” Or better yet, they were on mission with God; seeking and saving the lost. They visit a synagogue and are invited to speak: of course they will speak. And they will tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of their Jewish audience.

Talk about Jesus’ salvation and the will speak about John the Baptist (implying that they were doing the same). In that case, John offers the best of all missional perspective: We are nothing. We’re not the main act. We have only the message calling people to repentance and faith. When it’s all said and done, furthermore, the main act is yet to come. He is so much more than me; so much greater, important, powerful, worthy, and life-changing.

The missional perspective has little to do with having all the answers, able to confound the troublers, or sway the masses. The missional perspective is to point people to Jesus. He is God’s answer for all the world. Kings didn’t solve Israel’s problems. Judges had not fixed the ills of the Hebrews. Even rescue from Egypt and the gift of the Promised Land didn’t bring the fullness of life with God. They needed a Savior.

I have said before that the Old Testament is a giant object lesson about “What Won’t Work”. If we use the Bible (only) to tell people how to live, succeed, and make their way through this life, we have not embraced the missional perspective. If we do embrace the missional perspective, we will rejoice when anyone encounters the gospel, stay cool when under pressure, and entrust ourselves to God, looking for opportunities to honor him, remembering that Jesus truly is the only hope for the world.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. – Acts 13:4-12

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One of the flowers at the Flower Fields | Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

I’ve spoken before about Monty Roberts, the original horse whisperer. His join up videos are inspiring and remarkable. Most notable is his approach of sending horses away for a long period of time until the horse submits to him and ends up following him around the pen. He doesn’t entice with an apple or a sugar cube. He simply makes moves until the horse submits to him under its own will and “joins up.”

We seldom engage in horse whispering in the church, though that almost exactly what Saul-become-Paul is doing here in this encounter. He is not on a Dale Carnegie path of winning friends and influencing people. He isn’t trying to bridge a gap by means of diplomacy. He is seeking to bring the man to Jesus, by means of repentance and faith. This is all based on the grace and truth centered in Jesus.

To that end Paul confronts Elymas almost ruthlessly: 

“You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” – Acts 13:10-11

Elymas is struck blind, and the proconsul is struck by the obvious power of God. But Luke tells us something very important about the reason the proconsul is brought to faith: he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.  – Acts 13:12

There is more to bringing a person to faith than undercutting someone’s false faith. It has to do with the power of the love of Jesus and the good news of forgiveness in his name. Paul was not about to allow Elymas to undercut  the work of the Holy Spirit, who had begun the work of faith in the proconsul’s heart.

We might be tempted to soften the clear teachings of God’s word, and hold out sugar cubes rather than calling people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. That approach may make a friend (not necessarily a bad thing), but true faith faces the reality of our great need and God’s great love.

When someone encounters God’s grace and truth, he becomes not only a friend of God, but also a brother or sister in Christ. Getting there may sometimes be challenging, but the blessings of that fellowship are rich and beautiful.

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. – Acts 13:1-3

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Flowers of all kinds at the Flower Fields | Carlsbad, CA | March 2017

There is a very unique and exciting thing happening in the world of Christian mission work. Churches around the world are sending missionaries to the United States. Robert Scudieri publishes a blog highlighting this dynamic and dramatic movement of God. It’s worth following – if only to see the faces and hear some of the stories of these intrepid missionaries from afar. Who would have thought that African nations would be sending missionaries to the United States of America? Who would have thought that we need evangelizing!

Years ago a group of pastors got together in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of north Texas and formed a group called the Lutheran Intercity Network Coalition (LINC). I was privileged to be part of that initial group and saw many great things happening for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of it came about by means of the opportunities afforded us when churches in the inner city would either fail or disband, or move to the suburb, leaving a vacuum of Christian witness, and sometimes buildings or dollars from the sale of those buildings for the mission work there.

The significant reality in both the sending of missionaries to the United States as well as the formation of LINC (which has now become a major missional effort located in Houston). LINC Houston is a dynamic missional agency that connects especially with different ethnic groups in one of the most ethnically-diverse cities in the nation.

Why is it that ethnically-diverse groups of Christians are so often so missional, leading the charge for bringing the Good News of Jesus to people in need? There may be many answers, but this is nothing new.

Take a look at. the church in Antioch! Luke lists notable members there: “Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Notable in that one is apparently black, another is from Cyrene, another is perhaps Roman(?). Then there is Saul and Barnabas.

The Holy Spirit moved among this ethnically-diverse group of believers to send Saul on his first missionary trip. This is a fulfillment of Jesus’ words to Saul at his conversion:

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.” – Acts 9:15-16

This is also a preview of what heaven will be like:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” – Revelation 7:9-12

We had a small preview of that at St. John in a recent children’s event. It was a delightful reminder of the breadth of God’s love, his saving work in the lives of people of all nations, and a cause for thanks to God for including me – German squarehead that I am – in his kingdom! Makes me want to pray and see God’s Spirit set aside some more people for his mission.

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.

25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. – Acts 12:20-25

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These beautiful yellow flowers strike a strong contrast with the blue sky. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” Martin Luther rightly points out that “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.” It’s not something that we can make happen. We don’t build God’s kingdom. He builds his kingdom. He uses faithful people – witnesses, evangelists, pastors, friends, family members, apostles, prophets, teachers, and neighbors to do that. For the kingdom of God – better yet, the “rule and reign of God” is a rule and reign of grace in the heart of the believer. It is a beautiful thing to behold!

It is a great privilege to be part of God’s rule and reign coming to others through one’s witness, gospel sharing, and evangelistic efforts. It doesn’t always look like the rule and reign of God is making headway. But sometimes it clearly is. And in those cases, it is also clear that this is a work of God, not of man. We cannot cause someone to be struck down in their moment of arrogant boasting – though surely sometimes we wish we could.

There are those who claim to speak for God – though they have only their own welfare, benefit, and advancement in mind. But the servant of God who wishes to be part of God’s movement into the hearts and lives of others will claim no personal good within. And in the end the rule and reign of God will be advanced.

The self-important and prideful boaster will come to naught. This happens in bold relief here in these verses as Herod is struck down, eaten by worms(!), and dies: an inglorious end to say the least.

But note well the small statement, standing alone in the passage above:

But the word of God increased and multiplied. – Acts 12:24

New workers are being put into place for the advancement of the rule and reign of Jesus. He already reigns in their hearts. He will use them to bring others into his kingdom. The people are being brought together. The mission of God will advance. The kingdom of God will come.

I want to be part of that!