A Mutual Conversion

Scripture Focus: Acts 10:34-35
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Reflection: A Mutual Conversion
By Jon Polk

Cornelius was a big deal in Caesarea. A Roman centurion stationed in the city as a member of the Italian Regiment, Cornelius and his entire family were “God-fearing” Gentiles, regularly praying to the God of the Jews. He was also known for his generosity to the poor and needy.

None of this, however, is why Cornelius is recorded in the history of the early church. Instead, he is remembered for a vision and a summons.

During the middle of the day, Cornelius was visited by an angel, who instructed him to send for Peter. Marshalling his resources, he sent two servants and a trusted soldier on the mission to persuade Peter to come visit.

Meanwhile, Peter was experiencing his own vision in which he was instructed by God to eat unclean animals. While Peter wrestled with the meaning of his vision, Cornelius’ entourage arrived and convinced him to accompany them to Caesarea.

Impressed by Cornelius’ faith, Peter began preaching to the crowd gathered in the house, opening with the words, “I realize now that God does not show favoritism, but accepts anyone who fears him.” He then recounted for those assembled the gospel story of Jesus Christ.

Peter’s opening statement indicates a change in his own understanding. As a good Jew it was unlawful for him to even associate with Gentiles. It was incomprehensible to him that uncircumcised Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus, but that’s exactly what happened. We witness a mutual conversion, both of Cornelius the Gentile and of Peter the Jew.

Scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “The end of [verse 36, chapter 10] may be the most important line in the drama: ‘He is Lord of all’ means not only that there is no other Lord but that no one can be excluded from his Lordship.”

Through the conversion of Cornelius and company, the news of God’s impartial love for all humanity impacted Peter, but it also compels us as well. Because God shows impartial love to all kinds of people, we have a responsibility to show the same kind of love to all people. As God seeks out relationships with all people, we too are called to open ourselves to relationships outside our own social and cultural spheres.

It took the power of the Holy Spirit to bridge a relationship between Peter and Cornelius. That same Spirit empowers us in our calling to love others.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. — Psalm 34.4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 10 (Listen -3:19) 
Acts 10 (Listen -6:05)

This Weekend’s Readings
Nehemiah 1 (Listen -2:06), Acts 11 (Listen -3:52)
Nehemiah 2 (Listen -3:42), Acts 12 (Listen -3:49)

Read more about Putting To Death Racial Hostility
Christians must take the lead in racial issues…We cannot tire of addressing the issue. We have the only answer.

Read more about Racism Wears a Mask
It is rare that a person will admit, even to themselves, that they act out of racism directly. Racism always wears a mask.

A Congregation of Hope

Scripture Focus: Acts 9:40
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.

Reflection: A Congregation of Hope
By Jon Polk

Tabitha was a big deal in Joppa. A disciple and prominent member of the Joppa congregation, she was known for her generosity and considerable service to others, especially the widows in their midst. Apparently, her reputation carried outside the church to the larger Greek community as well, where she was known by her Greek name, Dorcas.

Tabitha’s great significance to the church is revealed after her untimely illness and death. Upon hearing that the miracle-working Peter was in nearby Lydda, not one but two witnesses were dispatched to urgently summon him. When Peter arrived on the scene, the group of weeping widows—who were not the usual professional mourners common of the day, but rather dear friends of Tabitha—showed him that the very clothes they were wearing were made by Tabitha, who distributed them to the poor and needy.

For the congregation in Joppa, Tabitha’s death was more than the loss of a close friend, it presented a serious impact on their ministry outreach to the poor. Without attempting to deal with the situation on their own, they reached out in tremendous faith for the power of God, represented by the healer, Peter.

In The Sacred Journey, author Frederick Buechner writes,

“When it comes to putting broken lives back together—when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls—the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.”

The congregation at Joppa recognized they had a God-sized need that required a God-sized solution. This congregation believed in a resurrection hope, in a God that could exceed all expectations. They came together to mourn and weep, but also to hope and pray, and eventually, to celebrate. They were vulnerable enough to accept that the situation was desperate beyond their control.

Life presents us with our share of challenges from daily nuisances to more significant needs for physical healing or spiritual resurrection. May we have the faith of the Joppa congregation and be willing to place our hope daily in our great God, the giver of life.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. — Psalm 69.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen -3:19) 
Acts 9 (Listen -6:05)

Read more from Buechner: Too Good Not to Be True
The preacher is apt to preach the gospel with the high magic taken out, the deep mystery reduced to a manageable size. — Frederick Buechner

Read more from Buechner: Restoration of Civility
“In Hebrew the term dabar means both word and deed,” Frederick Buechner observes. “Thus, to say something is to do something.”

Not for Sale

Scripture Focus: Acts 8:18-19
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Reflection: Not for Sale
By Jon Polk

Simon was a big deal in Samaria. They called him “The Great Power,” a title befitting a god, attributing to him divine power. Simon was a sorcerer, a magician. No, not like Gandalf or Harry Potter or David Blaine – magic in the ancient world was generally used in a negative context to describe counterfeit demonstrations of supernatural power, either performed by trickery or by tapping into some evil spiritual source.

Simon was convincingly good and insanely popular. Whether just a persuasive huckster or actually connected with some demonic force, he had captivated the whole city and people were amazed at what he could do.

In yet another example of the Gospel of Jesus reaching the most unlikely of recipients, Simon the Magician, like many of the citizens of Samaria, was captivated by Philip’s preaching. He believed the message of Jesus, was baptized and began to follow Philip around.

However, Simon couldn’t completely shake his past. Magic in the ancient world was utilitarian, viewing the spiritual dimension as a commodity that could be bought or sold and used for one’s own personal gain. A magician sought to control or manipulate spiritual forces.

Sadly, for Simon, the lure of his old life was too strong a temptation. When Simon witnessed Peter and John laying hands on the other believers and delivering the Holy Spirit to them, he offered money hoping to purchase this ability to be a conduit of the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s response calls out the sin in Simon’s heart, the attitude that divine power can be acquired for a price and used to manipulate people and situations. Simon wanted to purchase what was supposed to be a free gift. You don’t pay for a gift. However, the underlying attitude is that when I pay for something, I can control it.

You can’t control the gift of God. You can’t manipulate the Holy Spirit into doing your bidding.

Simon believed in the good news and was baptized but he didn’t completely let go of his old ways of thinking and living. Instead of giving himself completely to serve God, he thought that God’s power existed to serve him. Like Simon, we often want God’s power to benefit us, but God’s power in us is always intended to bless and benefit others.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught the people, saying: “I tell you most solemnly everyone who commits sin is a slave. Now a slave has no permanent standing in the household, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free.” — John 8.34-36

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 8 (Listen -5:40) 
Acts 8 (Listen -5:10)

Read more about Realizing the Power of Love
Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history, a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world. A movement mandating people to live that love. —  Bishop Michael Curry

Read more about Revelation of Love
The story of Revelation is a promise that none of God’s children will be left behind. All God’s children will come home.

The Exodus and The Return

Scripture Focus: Ezra 7.21-23

Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you—up to a hundred talents of silver, a hundred cors of wheat, a hundred baths of wine, a hundred baths of olive oil, and salt without limit. Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should his wrath fall on the realm of the king and of his sons?

Reflection: The Exodus and The Return

By John Tillman

There are two different examples in scripture of God setting his people free from oppressive captivity and parallels in the New Testament to go along with them.

In the Exodus narrative, freedom comes by rebellion, resistance, and cataclysmic confrontation. The people engage in deceitful (Exodus 1.15-21 and Exodus 5.3) resistance to the empire of Egypt that is their oppressor. In this narrative, the government is the enemy of God and the people triumph over and defeat the government oppressors in a violent confrontation in which God fights for them.

The New Testament version of this is the return of Christ described in Revelation and other prophetic writings. In this appearing, or second Advent, Christ comes as a liberating force, suddenly overthrowing the governments of the world which oppose Christ’s kingdom. Christ, the warrior on the white horse will, with his words, set us all free in a moment.

In the return from Babylon, freedom comes slowly over generations and is accomplished by faithful obedience. The people never engage in resistance or deceit. Others, working against them, use deceit and subterfuge but they never succeed. The empires act as their ally and protector.* 

*It is a mistake to assume the governments Ezra dealt with (or any government) is operating out of sincere belief as we would define it. The empires and kings Ezra references are operating in self-interest, honoring Yahweh as one of many gods in a pantheistic stew. It is only because of  Israel’s sinfulness and rebellion that it needed a foreign, idol-worshiping king to help it rebuild. When the church needs the power of government to help it change the world, it is a marker not of God’s favor, but of the church’s sinfulness and failure.

In the New Testament, we see a similar kind of growth in the way the early church proceeds to live under the corrupt rule of both the religious rulers and the brutal empire of Rome. This is the mode of freedom in Christ that we are still operating under today.

As we live under corrupt governments we must remember to live wisely and prudently. (Matthew 10.16) Those who are not against us are for us. (Mark 9.38-40) But we must also not abandon our integrity to fawn for the support of any king. For those who are not with us are against us. (Luke 11.23) The testimony of Ezra tells us that kings come and go, but it is the Lord who is our only hope and protector.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. — Psalm 118.28

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Read more about Light Shines in the Darkness
The Temple Solomon built was destroyed by God because it lost sight of holiness. The second Temple Ezra built would be condemned by Christ for losing sight of mercy.

Read more about The Mingled Prayers of Exiles
Lord, we pray today as the exiles prayed, with mingled sorrow and joy.


Light Shines in the Darkness :: Epiphany

Scripture Focus: Acts 6.7
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. 

1 Peter 2.9-10
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Reflection: Light Shines in the Darkness :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

On Christmas, the Advent candles fill our homes and hearts with joy and light. In Epiphany, we set that light on a lampstand for the world to see the light of Christ.

Epiphany’s purpose is to draw attention to the expanding and inclusive nature of the gospel. It is good news of great joy that will be for all people. The light has come to everyone—Gentiles included. No one is to be left in the dark.

The Temple Ezra rebuilt had always been intended to be a light to the nations, demonstrating God’s holiness and love. Just as the priests, stood between the people and God, confessing sin and administering pardon, so too was the nation of Israel intended to be a priest for the nations. It is this function to which Peter is referring when he describes the church as a “holy priesthood.” (1 Peter 2.9–10) Israel struggled to maintain the tension, however, between being holy and being a light to the other nations. We do too. 

Holiness and mercy seem to be consistently difficult for communities of faith to balance. In some communities, the emphasis on holiness is an impenetrable cultural barrier. Sinners don’t dare approach, even if the community would allow them to. In some communities, there is little in the way of holiness, for mercy has come to be interpreted as the non-existence of sin, rather than forgiveness offered for sin.

The Temple Solomon built was destroyed by God because it lost sight of holiness. The second Temple Ezra built would be condemned by Christ for losing sight of mercy and for preventing those of other nations from seeking the God of Israel. 

God would make us holy not so that we will be absent, abandoning the world, but so that we can be present, serving the world to demonstrate God’s love for them. It should be light which dispels darkness, not the other way around. 

Pray to be a light:
Jesus, Light of the world, help us to have a holiness that is not off-putting. May holiness be a light that comforts and reveals love, rather than condemnation. May the light of your holiness and love be a beacon in us, calling others to repentance and the renovation of their souls.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praise to you among the nations.
For your loving-kindness is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. — Psalm 57.9-10

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 6 (Listen -4:24) 
Acts 6 (Listen -2:35)

Read more about Radical Outreach to Outcasts :: Epiphany
If we listen long enough, Jesus will ask us to allow someone in, whom we would prefer to keep out…share our blessings with people who do not deserve them.

Read more about Setting a New Standard
Jesus rejected the morally compromised thinking of his culture, while at the same time welcoming into his fellowship those in clear violation of what he taught.

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