A Mutual Conversion

Scripture: 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.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever. — Psalm 145.22

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 10 (Listen – 6:19)
Acts 10 (Listen – 5:49)

A Congregation of Hope

Scripture: 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.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. — Psalm 124.8

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen – 3:19)
Acts 9 (Listen – 5:10)

Not for Sale

Scripture: 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.

The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Purge me from sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. — Psalm 51.8

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

Full prayer available online and in print.

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

Radical Outreach to Outcasts :: Epiphany

Scripture: Luke 4.25-28
“I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.

Reflection: Radical Outreach to Outcasts :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

The backlash that Jesus experienced in response to his Nazareth sermon was sudden and violent. One second they are talking about how well Jesus spoke, and the next they are shoving him toward a precipice, attempting to take his life.

What did Jesus say that was so divisive that the congregation went from friendly hometown crowd to murderous mob in a heartbeat? “God’s blessings are for your enemies, not just you.”

The characters Jesus holds up as examples of the types of people who would experience “the year of the Lord’s favor” represented everything his audience feared as “other.”

The widow of Zarephath was a foreigner, living in Sidon, one of Israel’s great enemies. Naaman the Syrian commander was even more controversial. He served the king who was oppressing Israel at the time he was healed. In today’s terms we would call Naaman a terrorist, a child-kidnapper, a human trafficker, and a war criminal. These are the kinds of outsiders that Christ celebrates as examples of who the Kingdom of God is available to, of who he will manifest himself to.

It is when we are the closest to Jesus that he will challenge us most directly. It is when we know him the best, like the Nazareth crowd, that he can surprise us the most. Everyone is pleased with Christ’s words when we agree with them. When he is blessing us, helping us, healing us, and promising us the kingdom, we listen affectionately. But if we listen long enough, Jesus will say something that makes us want to throw him off a cliff in anger.

He will ask us to allow someone in, whom we would prefer to keep out. He will ask us to accept someone we don’t want to accept. He will ask us to risk our safety to help outsiders who may be dangerous. He will ask us to share our blessings with people who do not deserve them. (Of course we don’t deserve them either…)

Jesus chose to announce God’s kingdom in his backwater hometown that most young men would seek to expunge from their résumés. He chose to go out of his way to reach out to despised people—tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, lepers, adulterers, foreigners. If we are to participate in Christ’s Epiphany, we must choose to manifest his same radical love and outreach to outcasts.

On January 6th, tomorrow, the church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany — the manifestation or revealing of Christ to the Gentiles. May we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, not as a national conqueror who strikes down our human enemies, but as a personal liberator who strikes down the enemy of sin within each of us.

The Call to Prayer
Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face. — Psalm 105.4

– From Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 5 (Listen – 3:02)
Acts 5 (Listen – 6:49)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezra 6 (Listen – 4:24) Acts 6 (Listen – 2:35)
Ezra 7 (Listen – 4:39) Acts 7 (Listen – 8:49)

Liberty for the Oppressed :: Epiphany

Scripture: Luke 4.18
…to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….

Acts 4.18-20
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Reflection: Liberty for the Oppressed :: Epiphany
By John Tillman

Totalitarian regimes tend to pile up political terms in their names that belie the actual political realities within their borders—for example, People’s, Democratic, and Republic. If all three of these words are in the name of a country, you don’t want to live there. In a similar way The Pax Romana is a bit of a misnomer.

The Pax Romana has, at times, been spoken of in glowing terms by historians and theologians, as if Caesar was doing the world a favor so that the Prince of Peace could be born in a time of peace. But Christ wasn’t born during a time of true peace, but a false peace built on government oppression and enforced by atrocity.

God didn’t need Caesar to clean up the world for Jesus to enter it. He entered it just as it was—a corrupt, violent land, defined by disparity. Jesus was born in the midst of a forced government migration that was enacted to better enforce a crushing tax burden. He fled to a foreign country to escape an army that without compunction murdered children at the whim of their dictator. He worshiped in a Temple in which it was not uncommon for soldiers to slaughter worshipers among their sacrifices.

Christ’s audience for his Nazareth sermon was quite familiar with oppression. Western Christians, as much as we may think we are being oppressed, know little about it.

In the past ten years, Western governments and culture have become only marginally less friendly to Christianity, yet we have become anxious and desperate, willing to sign any political bargain in order to prevent losing cultural sway. We seem to care more about our influence in culture than Christ’s influence in us.

To manifest Christ, we must declare freedom for others who are oppressed, not declare that our oppression must cease. We need to make the drastic change of focus that the Apostles made. In Acts chapter 4, before the Sanhedrin, we see that Peter and John’s selfish focus on political gain has completely vanished. As often as they spoke truth to power, as often as they stood their ground despite threats of imprisonment and even death, not once do we ever see them bargaining with a politician.

The Apostles never ask for, nor receive political freedom. They simply carry out the actions that Christ calls them to—actions that caused the city to rejoice. The road back to societal influence for the church doesn’t run through elected officials, it runs through doing the work of Christ to lessen the burden on the oppressed.

The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

– From Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Ezra 4 (Listen – 4:27)
Acts 4 (Listen – 5:15)

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