We teach our children so many lessons that we fail to apply to our adult lives. One of the most important is this: Be true to who you are no matter where you are or who you’re with. In today’s text, we find Cephas (Peter) letting church politics dictate his behavior. When he was in a setting with only Gentiles, he would break the rules of Jewish customs. When others arrived, he would refrain, making it seem like he was condemning the Gentiles’ behavior. We might call this being “two-faced,” but we also know that remaining true to our identity in Christ no matter the circumstance is more difficult than we like to admit.
We can find ourselves in situations where acting as though our faith isn’t our first priority seems easier, helps us fit in better, and causes less of a stir. We’re more adept at identifying Cephas’s behavior in those around us than we are at admitting how we often imitate his behavior to conform to others’ expectations of us. Though it may present itself differently, peer pressure is alive and well at age 55, just as it is at 15. We need to ground ourselves in our Christian identity and constantly remember that the God we serve is so much bigger than the world’s expectations of us.
So instead of judging Cephas, let’s offer him grace. Let’s empathize with him and recall the times when we have been chameleons too, changing our spots to fit in.
Identify a time when you changed or misrepresented a part of yourself to fit in better with the people around you. What did this gain you? What did it cost you?
Always present God, give us courage when we feel pressure to compromise our identity for the sake of acceptance. Remind us that our worth is found in you through all seasons and circumstances. Amen.
“Sure, you can have eternal life in Jesus and join our church if… you vote like I do.”
Hopefully, you think this is a ridiculous statement. Jesus is too big to be restricted by our divisive two-party system, or any other worldly structure.
Speaking of division, that’s what was happening between the Jews and the Gentiles when Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. Some religious leaders were requiring people to adopt Jewish culture before they could join the Christian faith. Adding our own cultural demands on top of a commitment to Jesus is a sure-fire way to turn people away from the Gospel. When we say, “you can join us if…”, we are suggesting that God would say the same. And even if we would never say the if clause aloud, we often find unspoken ways to suggest that faith is conditional on being, acting, or even voting a certain way. We subconsciously live out the slogan in George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm, that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In Galatians, Paul proclaims that while some were called by God to preach to the Jews, he has been called to preach to the Gentiles, and one is not above the other. All can be recipients of the good news, and all can exhibit the fruits of a relationship with Christ in their lives, no matter their culture, political party, socioeconomic status, or any other category that labels us. That’s one of the most miraculously powerful aspects of the Gospel. It is truly for all people from every walk of life—though we shouldn’t be surprised at this. Nothing is as wide and abundant as the love of Christ.
Who do you consider, even subconsciously, to be lesser Christians than you are? How might it change our lives, churches, and communities if we stopped believing that things have to be done our way to be the best?
God of all, when we feel the pull towards divisiveness and exclusion based on cultural standards, may we always hear your call to inclusion and love. Amen.
Have you ever tried to explain your faith to someone? Ever had to respond to a question like, “So why do you believe in God, anyway?” Maybe you’ve had that experience. But many of us have not been asked to articulate to someone what we believe or why we believe it. When we’re immersed in a culture where Christianity is the cultural norm in many places, we assume a lot. This was hardly the case in the beginning of Christianity.
In today’s Scripture, Paul is presenting the Gospel to the leaders of this community for their consideration. The end of verse 2 offers essential wisdom. Paul expresses concern that he was not running and had not been running my race in vain (NIV). In Paul’s setting, his success or failure to present the Gospel compellingly is of the utmost importance. In our settings, we may find it easy to live our lives of faith quietly. Sometimes we do so with the best of intentions. We don’t want people to think we are forcing our beliefs on them or feel that we are being “holier than thou.”
But sometimes in our quest to avoid offending others, we forget how to invite people into relationship with Jesus by presenting a compelling vision of the Gospel with our lives, words, and actions. Paul is successful here, but he was not always. Like Paul, we will sometimes face failure, skepticism, and even ridicule when we publicly proclaim our faith. But a loud, robust faith of love and inclusion inspired by the life of Christ is what we are called to embrace. So let us not forget how to shout it from the rooftops.
If we remember that we need to present a compelling vision of the Gospel with our lives, words, and actions, how might we live that out today?
Holy One, guide us to lead lives that shout your glory, grace, and goodness, so that they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.
Paul is an outstanding example of something we all ought to practice more: changing our minds. And those Christians who once fear, then joyfully accept him model this amazing virtue too. Our world pressures us to take sides. We’re taught, “Decide what you believe and never back down about it.” Refusing to tolerate those who believe differently is often viewed as a sign of strong faith. Faltering or considering someone else’s point of view is often seen as a sign of weakness.
Paul doesn’t hide the story of who he once was—he details it. The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy (v. 23, NIV). Paul changed his mind in a big way. And his willingness to shout it from the rooftops causes others to change their minds as well. And they praised God because of me (v. 24, NIV). Paul allowed God to change his mind, even though he’d been so certain of his convictions that he had pursued Christians and watched them being killed! Later, those who received him after hearing his full story let God alter their understanding in radical ways too.
Admitting that we have been wrong, even when the details aren’t as dramatic as those in Paul’s story, is difficult. But instead of seeing this as weakness, let’s recognize the vulnerability and humility that it takes to change our minds. Let’s see these as the incredible strengths that they are. Our whole lives are intended to be a journey of Christian faith, in which we strive each day to be better followers of Jesus. How can we continue to learn if we believe we’ve already arrived? How can we receive new truths from God if our hardened hearts are not open to them? Let Paul’s life and testimony remind us of our calling to keep our hearts open to where the Spirit is leading. We are never finished products.
Whose stories might God want you to hear this week? What obstacles keep us from considering other points of view?
God, remind us that we don’t hold the truth, but you do. May we constantly seek truth, justice, peace, and love—wherever that journey takes us. Amen.
Which Bible character is your least favorite? Maybe that’s a strange question, but when we read the Bible closely, it seems like the list of potential candidates is endless. Perhaps King Herod repulses you most. Who could forgive his executive order to kill all of Bethlehem’s boys under age two? Or perhaps you have trouble getting past Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, even though his situation seems tricky. Does David bother you most when he conspires to have Uriah killed so that he can hide his sins and take Bathsheba as his wife? When we pay close attention to the people in the biblical text, we learn how exceedingly difficult it is to call any of them role models. Even those we tout as great biblical heroes made some reprehensible choices.
But therein lies the beauty and truth of our own callings as God’s beloved. God uses all kinds of sinful people who are full of greed and lust, jealousy and anger to do God’s work in the world. God tends to choose the broken and rejected.
On those days when we examine our lives and feel certain that they are too broken to be useful, remember how often Scripture proves that idea wrong. In today’s text we encounter Paul, my least favorite biblical character. Paul says some things about the role and place of women that make my blood boil, even after I take his culture and context into account. Not to mention the active role he once played in persecuting Christians! Yet even Paul was not beyond the reach of God’s grace. Thanks be to God that I’m not either.
Who is your least favorite person in the Bible? How could their story remind you that God has a continuing purpose for your life, even when we make truly questionable choices?
God, remind me that though I fall short, I am more than enough to be your beloved child. Amen.
In her children’s book The List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead tells the story of what happens to Bea when her parents divorce. When this event rocks her stable life, it causes Bea’s family to look for ways to comfort Bea and each other. Their quest leads them to make a list of things that will not change, like her parents’ love for their child.
After I heard this book reviewed on NPR, it struck me that those of us who are part of God’s Church need a list like this right now. During these days of great volatility and disruption, many of us feel overwhelmed. Being reminded of the things on which we can stand while the world is rocking is a help and a comfort.
Psalm 117 reminds us that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness does not change. What else do we know deep in our spiritual bones that does not change when it comes to following Jesus together? Here’s my short list:
Identity. We know who we are. We are disciples of Jesus.
Companions. We are not alone. We are church together.
Mission. We know our calling. We partner with God toward bringing the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.
These things do not change. They keep us grounded in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Thanks be to God!
What’s on your list of things that will not change? Consider writing one and sharing it with a trusted companion.
God, your steadfast love and faithfulness endure from generation to generation. Help us to stand on that sure foundation, whatever occurs. Amen.
Meet Simeon, spiritual scout. Visualize him entering the temple daily, scanning the crowd, listening for the still small voice and some insider information. Will today be the day? Simeon scouts for the Messiah, looking for God’s appearing and waiting to see God’s promise fulfilled.
While consulting with a church whose attendance was growing rapidly, I attended a service to learn how they cultivate spiritual engagement. During their liturgical worship, the pastor did something unusual. He stepped down from the chancel, grabbed a microphone, and roamed the aisles to ask, “Who has a God sighting to share from your week?” I grew nervous. This could quickly go off the rails. But people waved eagerly to get the pastor’s attention, took the mic, and shared for a minute or two. One story went like this: “While visiting my mother in the facility, I saw her caregiver interact with her in such a way that I know they have a close relationship, giving me great comfort when I can’t be there. That was an expression of God’s love.” After a number of people spoke, the pastor returned to the chancel and the service proceeded. This happened eight years ago. I still remember the spiritual impact of those God-sighting stories.
Afterwards I asked the pastor how this started. “Spontaneously. We were studying how to recognize God’s presence in ourselves, our church, and our community, so I started asking about God sightings. At first nobody had anything to say. Then, when they knew I’d be asking in worship, they started noticing God’s activity. Now we see this as a spiritual discipline that trains us to recognize God’s movement in our lives.”
Like Simeon, we spiritual scouts look for God’s appearing.
Where did you spot God this week? How do you learn to recognize God’s advent and activity?
God, we pray for the eyes to see and the ears to hear you among us. Amen.
Sometimes it’s hard to get ourselves out of the way. Our expectations about how God should act may keep us from experiencing the movement of God’s Spirit. Sometimes we must lay aside our opinions about how church should be to enjoy the present wonder of God’s emerging forms of church. Like Zacchaeus who struggled to see Jesus through the crowds, we too need to leave the safe ground for higher branches.
Through working with churches of many sizes and flavors, I’ve come to realize that every one of us who is involved and invested in a congregation carries an internalized picture of what church should look like. Our perception of what a good church is and how it should function forms over a long period of time. A variety of experiences and dynamics shape that visual. Ask anyone how their church is going these days and that person will answer based on their own ideal of what a healthy or effective or pleasing congregation looks like.
Though they develop naturally, our preferred church preferences complicate the crucial renewal of Christ’s church. When situations lead our congregations to new opportunities for transformation, being willing to adjust our expectations becomes part of our calling. Speaking for the Jerusalem church, James suggests that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God by complicating their growing faith with Jerusalem-shaped expectations (v. 19). Instead, James urges them to get out of the way and make space for God to shape the Antioch church as God sees fit. James’ prophetic voice also calls us to get ourselves out of the way so that we’ll get caught up in the way of Jesus.
What does your picture of the ideal church look like? How similar is it to an actual church? What adjustments might we make to not inadvertently “trouble the Gentiles turning to God” in our contexts?
God, help us to love you, and others, and especially your church more than we love our internalized picture of what the church should be. Amen.
How do we discern whether or not what’s happening around us is part of God’s purpose for this time and place? Individuals and churches have asked this question repeatedly throughout Christian history. Various denominations have identified discernment tools for their particular group within the Christian family to help them respond to it. In Acts, we observe three practices that those early disciples use to discern God’s Spirit moving within their time and place.
First, they grow quiet and listen. It’s possible to grow quiet without listening; sometimes we prepare a rebuttal while others talk or feign interest while our minds wander. Yet these disciples discipline themselves through keeping silence and actively listening for God’s guidance.
Second, these Jerusalem disciples turn to trusted leaders. They listen to Peter (Simeon), Paul, Barnabas, and James, prophets and pastors with well established credibility within the church. When in need of discernment, turning to trusted leaders for insight is a familiar practice.
Third, the disciples look for connections to their faith story. James points to the Scriptures to explain how the Gospel’s outreach to the Gentiles is part of the unfolding story God began long ago. Our present spiritual reality is always the next canvas for God’s work among God’s people. As a collection of stories about our spiritual kin, the Scriptures to which we turn offer clues about God’s ways with humankind.
As Christ’s Church undergoes transformation due to life-disrupting circumstances, the spiritual practices of the early disciples are strikingly useful for us now. What guided our spiritual ancestors will guide us too, as God reshapes the church in these volatile times.
Using the three practices described above, what is emerging in your church that may be part of God’s unfolding story?
God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear as you call us onward. Help us partner with your mission to bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Why do we have so much trouble trusting the goodness of God’s grace? We know that grace saves us, but we act like this truth is too good to be true. We struggle to accept what’s undeserved, what we haven’t achieved. In vain we try to earn what can only be accepted as a gift.
Peter, a trusted Apostle in the Jerusalem church, pulls out a trusty three-point sermon to steer the Antioch congregation, which is overwhelmed by the Spirit’s attempts at a course correction. But its out-of-the-box theology makes this no ordinary three-pointer. First, Peter testifies that God doesn’t distinguish between Gentiles and Jews but regards them equally. This jars Jewish Christians, who have been God’s favorites for thousands of years. While Peter proclaims the expanded family of God, his audience thinks about the power and influence they will likely lose. Hearing that others are as chosen as you are may not sound like good news. Second, Peter explains that since achieving righteousness through their law and works was too difficult for the first chosen people, there’s no reason to place that burden on the backs of the expanded people of God. God’s grace is what saves, not our adherence to the Law of Moses. Third, Peter preaches the essence of the gospel, making God’s grace for all God’s people clear. These were revolutionary statements for their social and religious context.
And this radical gospel of Jesus Christ continues to unfold before us in 2021. Whether we are shackled by the constraints of too much religion or lost without guidance in a world of possibilities, God’s grace offers spiritual seekers a way that is radically good and beautiful.
Who in this Scripture do you resonate with the most: the Jewish insider who holds the chosen position or the Gentile outsider who has been excluded? What makes Peter’s message good news for you?
God, help us trust that your grace is as good as it is, as you share it generously and give it without distinction to all of us who seek you. Amen.