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Sunday, November 25, 2018


A sermon based upon Acts 10: 23-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
33rd  Sunday in Ordinary Time,  November 25th,  2018 
(14-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

A German friend, recently sent me a video of little Asian American girl pleading on a video for her parents to overcome their differences and make up with each other.   The cute little girl is setting on the carpeted stairs of her home, pleading with her divorced parents saying, ‘I’m not trying to be mean, but ‘we’ve got to get low.’ We’ve got to come together and make up with one another.  We can’t stay mad at each other.  You’ve got to be friends.  You’ve got to ‘get low’.  You’ve got to say low. (

The great surprise of the gospel, is that in order for the church to move out into the world to become a world movement, it had to ‘get low’.  The mission of the church could not and cannot succeed nor proceed with feelings, attitudes or actions of superiority or dominance.  The church had to begin, and can only continue, with a stance of meekness and humility.
In other words, before we can ‘reach high’ in God’s work, the church must ‘get low.’

In our text today, we have and interesting example of Christian humility. Simon Peter, who was named the first leader of the church by Jesus Christ, is refusing to allow having someone ‘bow’ to him.  What is happening here is a very big deal. Let me explain.      

Simon Peter was the unofficial ‘head’ of the early church.  Whereas, James, the brother of Jesus, had been given the official role of administrative leader of the church in Jerusalem, it was Peter who had been named by Jesus the confessional ‘rock’ or ‘head’ of the church.  It might be hard for us to understand this, here we already come to one of the first steps of humility that a church must make to move forward on mission.  A church does not move forward when everything depends only on one or a very few.  If the church has only one leader; that is only has one person being responsible for planning, approving, or doing everything that happens, then the church will be locked into a certain size, a certain perspective, or a certain form.  But when the church becomes a ‘team’ of leaders who all share leadership based upon calling, talents, and duties, then the church is able to move forward.  In order for the church to move forward in this way, it demands humility, meekness, building trust, honest and open sharing in ways that shows growing compassion and concern.  

The second important step in humility, is not just among the leaders who are already in the church, but here, we see Peter responding to great humility from an outsider, named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a wealthy, military leader in the Roman world, who was in charge an entire division.  He was also known to be a compassionate, caring person, who feared God and helped others.  But since Cornelius was an ‘outsider’; that is a Gentile,  as a Jew, in order to accept him into the church, Peter had to humble himself to a Gentile, just like Cornelius had to become humble, as a worldly person, to respect this new Jewish movement called the church.  

What is most beautiful in this exchange between Peter and Cornelius is their humility toward each other.  When greeting Peter, Cornelius ‘bows’ to him in reverence, but Peter, as the leader of the church, refuses to allow anyone ‘bow’ to him in this way.  Peter wants Cornelius to know, right up front, that the church works in a way that is very different from the world.  In the church, no one is put on a pedestal, and in the church, no one is put down in a lower position.  In the church the only right position, is shared-humility before God.  The church is made of a people who first ‘get low’ before they can become a people who soar high.

Before we move on, we must fully understand what is happening here in Acts, chapter 10.  Up to this point, the church was still, solely a sect of Judaism.  Jesus had been a Jew.  All the disciples were Jewish.  The Holy Spirit was poured only on Jews.  Peter stood up to preach to Jews, demanding they repent because they ‘crucified’ Jesus.  All the first converts were Jewish converts.  Steven, who was the first Christian martyr, was Jewish.  The Ethiopian Eunuch, who was converted, was Jewish, as was Phillip, the Greek-speaking Jew, who preached Christ to him.  Even Saul, who later was given the Latin name, Paul, was Jewish, and was trained as a Jewish rabbi. 

But now, in this text, something important changes.  This completely Jewish movement that is following Jesus, is about to receive it’s very first Roman, Gentile believer.  This is a momentous, even controversial step. For the church to receive its first Gentile conversion, a lot of differences, barriers, rules, regulations and laws had to be negotiated.  In fact, some of these ‘laws’ have to be ‘forgiven’ altogether, just like sins were forgiven.  Since God had commanded foods to be Kosher and circumcision to be required, this was a big step; a big, big deal.  It is a ‘change’ that would never have been made without miraculous, revelation of God’s purpose and will. It is a move that the church and its leaders would have never made without humility and meekness.

The New Testament is clear about the ‘humility’ as a priority of God in the Kingdom that is still coming and in the mission the church is called to accomplish.  ‘Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled; and those who humble themselves will be exalted’ (Luk 14:11).  This kind of humility is a priority because Christ is ‘meek and lowly at heart’ (Matt. 11:29) who ‘humbled himself’ with his ‘death on the cross’ (Phil 2:9) and because Jesus taught that only ‘the meek will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:5).  The most practical James, gives us the greatest clarity of what Christian humility means in action: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble…submit yourselves to God, resist the devil…draw near to God…purify you hearts…humble yourselves in the sight of God and he will lift you up…don’t speak evil (or judge) one another (James 4:6-11).  But it is Peter himself, who has the final word on humility: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time (1 Pet. 5:6).

Why is ‘humility’ such a great necessity for the mission and future of the church?  Our text reminds, perhaps most important of all, that humility is important, because of who God is and how God loves.

In the unfolding story of the church, what Peter and the church are learning, and what we also required to learn, is that God’s mission in the world must be based on a ‘new’ understanding of who God is, how God works, and how God loves. 

This ‘understanding’ that ‘God has no favorites’, ‘shows no favoritism’ or ‘accepts anyone who fears God’ is the ‘next’ great surprise, after the cross, in the Biblical story.   So, if the great revelation and surprise and shock of the cross is that God loves sinners, the next great big great shock and surprise of God after the cross, is that God not only loves us, but that God also loves them, and us too, ‘even while we (and they) are still sinners’

Since being or remaining a ‘Gentile’ in the Jewish vocabulary was synonymous with being a ‘sinner’, it took humility and openness to come to this new understanding of God.  Peter and the church had to grasp not only the greatness of God’s law, but they also can to grasp the greatness of God’s grace.  It was through the conversion of this uncircumcised Gentile named Cornelius, that Peter, learned not only for himself, but for the whole church, that God shows no favoritism, which means that God does not treat one person differently than another, but that God accepts anyone and everyone who ‘fears him and does what is right.

The point Peter makes, and that the church, and people must still understand is not that God has become a ‘wishy-washy’, ‘sugar-daddy’, benevolent dictator, who ‘offers grace’ and ‘forgiveness’ to everyone regardless of how they live.  This God who loves and forgives is still the same ‘holy’ and ‘just’ God of Israel, who demands ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ from his people, just as he now calls them to new a new level of ‘humility’ and ‘obedience’.  

What it does mean to say that God ‘shows no favorites’ points us to greater, fuller, and more complete and clear understanding of the kind of God, God is, which reveals more fully, the kind of love, God has and we must have too.  Israel’s God is not to be misunderstood as the God who is builds walls, but Israel’s God has been revealed in Jesus as the God who tears down wall, who crosses barrier and cultures, and overcomes differences and distinctions, so that human divisions and dysfunctions can be overcome and people can come together in God’s truth with dignity, grace, humility and in peace. 

What is now become clear and must be humbly received and acknowledged, before the church can go forward, is what God has been trying to reveal to his people all along.  Through the church, God releases his ‘glory’ into the whole world, so that the ‘whole world can be filled with God’s glory’.  This ‘glory’ is has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is now being released into the life and mission of the church, to take to the whole world the whole message of God, who calls everyone to righteousness, by accepting anyone who will respond to God’s love, because this God loves sinners, even while they are still sinners, so that redemption can now be fully realized in the world and salvation can be received by every person who will believe.

What this new ‘movement’ or ‘work’ of God required of the church then, is what God’s new work in our church still requires now; humility.  It requires from us the same kind of humility that was required of Peter, of Cornelius, and of the entire church, as it moved forward, reinterpreting Scripture as it came to grips with the needs of humanity and humbly followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit, who was doing a new thing.  The church would not have been able to move forward without ‘humble’ leadership, and it would not have been able to understand what God was up to, without a ‘humble’ willingness to learn and understand and grasp the wideness of God’s love and grace.  The still very Jewish church had to move beyond Jewish conservatism, and the only way to do with was with a gentle, compassionate, Christ-like liberalism, which would also become a gentle, compassionate, Christian conservatism, that would be constantly open to the leading, calling, and constantly unfolding work and will of God in the world.

Now, I realize that words like ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’ are ‘loaded’ with all kinds of variations of political and religious meaning—even dangerous ones.  I’m not trying to get into a debate about whether we need liberals or conservatives, because we always need both.  What I’m trying to help us acknowledge, is that took humility of both, Jewish conservatives, and Jewish liberals, to enable the very Jewish Church to become the very Gentile Church, that brought God’s salvation to you and to me. 

Recently, in the Baptist news, a Baptist seminary president was ‘released’ or ‘fired’ because he did not remain ‘humble’ in his own interpretation of Scripture or his interpretation of events in life.   Years ago, he had told a wife who was being continually abused, that she ‘should not’ divorce her husband, but not many paid much attention.  But when a female student in the seminary came to him, informing him, that she had ‘been sexually abused’, even ‘raped’ by another student, that very conservative seminary president told her that ‘she needed not report’ the incident, should ‘forgive her assailant’ without recourse, and that her future ‘husband’ would not mind that she was raped. (

When this news was finally released in the papers, there was such a great backlash, that the seminary president was ‘fired’ and ‘forced to retire’ and many other conservative Baptist leaders spoke out to clarify that this is not the kind of conservatism Baptist should espouse or promote.  They said that Bible should only be interpreted in a way that respected women.

I share that story, to remind us all, not only that we must take care when we interpret Scripture, but I also want to remind us that there are good kinds of conservatism, just like there are good kinds of liberalism.  But there are also bad kinds of conservatism, just like there are bad kinds of liberalism.  It takes great humility for people, and for the church too, to navigate the changing landscape of the world with the love of God.  As Jesus told the church, the church not only ‘retains’ or ‘conserves’, but the church also ‘releases’ or ‘looses’ things on earth, that will be either retained or released in heaven.   What needs to retained or released can only be determined by a people who are humbly, not proudly following the Spirit of Jesus Christ, in the grace and goodness of God’s love.

This way of humility, following God’s love, not just God’s laws, can’t be navigated with our own knowledge or understanding, but as Peter declares that this humble ‘stance’ of life, living, and interpreting God’s ‘message’ can only be maintained when we have ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’ who makes ‘peace’  in how he rules and reigns over ‘all’ things.

What this means is that the God of Israel, has finally and fully revealed himself in the forgiving and accepting love of Jesus Christ.  God does not rule over the world with an iron fist, but God rules the world with the enduring love.  “He went around doing good” is how this Jesus ‘healed all who were under the power of the devil” (v.38).   This is the kind of God, and the kind of ‘judge’ the Father of Jesus Christ, turns out to be, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ so that ‘everyone who believes can be forgiven’.

So, for now, we come to the this most important message for the mission of the church, then or now.   We can only accomplish Christ’s mission, when we become Christ-like; and we can only become Christ-like, when we understand what God is about---God is about ‘accepting’ not ‘rejecting’; God is about ‘forgiving’, not ‘condemning’, and God is healing the great hurt of the human soul.  

We can only become a church that preaches and teaches like this; when we also become a people who humble ourselves to believe and live like this.  We must become leaders who humble ourselves to work together.  We must be a people who humble ourselves to reach out to people who aren’t exactly like us.  And most of all, we must call them to the same ‘lord of all’ whom we have already surrendered ourselves too, so that we all can become the people who live and love like our Lord lived and loved.  Again, as that little Asia girl said,  “I’m not trying to be mean, but if you want  serve God, you’ve ‘got to get low’.  Amen. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

“Suddenly, a Light…”

A sermon based upon Acts 9: 1-19
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
31st  Sunday in Ordinary Time,  November 11,  2018 
(12-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

The account of Paul’s conversion repeated not once, but three times in the book of Acts, captures and captivates the Christian imagination. 

We wonder is this what we are to expect in all Christian accounts conversion?  People do love to hear a ‘dramatic’ story of immediate change and conversion, whether it is religious or not.

Recently, I heard a Charlotte Pastor, Pendleton Perrry tell of his conversion from being a life-long Duke to now being an fanatical Carolina fan.  He had been a duke fan all during his childhood and teen years.  He followed Duke basketball with great passion.  He had Duke posters all over his bedroom.  He knew all the players and stats.  And he had loved to pull for Duke against Carolina, especially, cheering fanatically every time Duke won.

Then, that very ‘second’, right in the middle of basketball season, he received an acceptance letter inviting him to study at Chapel Hill.  He said that then, in an instant, his loyalty changed. Today, there is no more loyal Carolina fan than Pendleton Perry.  The moment he got that letter, his heart was converted to from dark Blue Devil to Carolina blue Tarheel.

I can’t say the same for me.  When I studied at Gardner-Webb College, instead of going off to Carolina, there was no great fanfare or salute.  Like most people, I went off to college to study and to gain the knowledge and experience I needed to work and follow my calling.  I thought Gardner-Webb was a good place to get a quality education.  There was no great ‘conversion’ experience.  Gardner-Webb just happened to be the school that accepted me first.  There was no great fanfare or sudden change of attitude.  I went to school.  I studied hard.  I made good grades, learned, and matured, but there was no sudden ‘new’ me. 

When we turn our attention to the conversion of Saul, who changed his name from the Hebrew ‘Saul’ to the Latin, “Paulus”, we see a much more dramatic experience.  Saul’s conversion story is filled power words and phrases like ‘suddenly’ (3), ‘a light…flashed’ (3), ‘He fell…’ (4), ‘a voice’ (4), ‘speechless’ (7), and ‘vision’ (10).   There is nothing dull, ordinary, or ‘common’ about Saul’s conversion.  Still, the men traveling with Saul heard a ‘sound’, but they ‘did not see anyone’ (7).  It was mysterious to them, but it was very real to Saul.  We are told that as a result, ‘for three days (Saul) was blind and did not eat or drink anything’ (9).  Whatever it was, as it’s often said, it ‘threw him for a loop’.

FF Bruce, the late British NT scholar, commenting on impact of this religious experience upon Saul’s life, wrote: “Few of Saul’s distinctive insights into the significance of the gospel cannot be traced back to this Damacus-Road event, or to the outworking of that event in his life and thought” (FF Bruce, Acts, New International Commentary, p. 183).

Even though Saul’s experience is unique, Dr. Bruce goes on to cite a similar conversion to Sundar Singh in 1904.  Singh was a hindu, who had also be saying negative things about Jesus, and then suddenly, without warning, encountered ‘Christ’ is a ‘light of love’, though he had never, ever, read of Saul’s conversion.

If you’ve read the account of the conversion experience of great French mathematician, Blaise Pascal from 1654, in which he wrote down his exact experience and sewed it into his jacket, where it was found years later upon his death by one of his servants.  It was very specific:
In the year of Grace, 1654, On Monday, 23rd of November…From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve,
God of Abraham, God of Issac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certitude.  Certitude. Feeling.  Joy.  Peace. 
God of Jesus Christ.  “My God and Your God”. 
He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel…This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and the one whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn. 17:3).  Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ” 
(As quoted in Conversions, Kerr and Mulder, 1983, p. 37).

Growing up a Baptist, we have been a people who celebrated greatly such clarity of conversion.   One of the gospel songs expressed the sentiments this way:  “I Can Tell You the Time.  I Can Tell You the Place.  Where the Lord Saved Me, By His Marvelous Grace…’  That song not only celebrates  the clarity of time and place, but it also points us to the mystery of the ‘why’ or the ‘how’:  ‘But I Can Not Tell You How.  And I Can Not Tell You Why.  But I will tell you all about it,”  the song concludes, “in the By and By.”   Clarity of Conversion, along with the Mystery of Conversion; that’s the strange combination of religious experience?

Perhaps some of you have such ‘clarity’ or ‘drama’ in your conversion experience too.  Maybe like Saul, that moment was dramatic, clear, or instant.   

But what if, like me, your conversion story is not so dramatic.  What is you would just one of the youth, who finally ‘understood’, went to your father, to the preacher, or walked down an long, church isle on a Sunday morning, or at a revival service, because everyone else did, and you realized you needed to do that too.  What if the your ‘conversion’ to Christ was much less dramatic, though is was just as real?  While your love for Christ and your conversion to the truth of the gospel is no less impactful for your life, it wasn’t some momentous or earth-shattering, event. Does this mean it is less real, or important? 

Maybe your experience of conversion is more like that which we read about when we move from Saul’s story, to encounter the simple, but reluctant faith of this ‘disciple’ named ‘Ananias’.   In fact, if there hadn’t been an Ananias who stood ready to ‘obey’ God’s voice, there would have been no Saul, at all.   But Ananias’ has no dramatic story of conversion.  Besides, Ananias was a bit ‘reluctant’ to be obedience to God’s voice, wasn’t he? 

While there is no doubt that Ananias is a ‘disciple’—a follower of Jesus, when ‘the Lord called to him in a vision’ and told him to ‘go to the house of Judas on Straight Street…” and to ‘lay hands on him to restore (Saul’s) sight’, Ananias answered with great reserve and reluctance: “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done…And he has come here with authority…to arrest all those who call on your name (10-15).”  Can you blame Ananias for this reluctance?  After all, Saul had killed Christians?

But my point here is not about Ananias’ reluctance, but about his conversion.  While there is no doubt that something dramatic happened to Saul, we don’t even know how Ananias became a Christian.  Probably it wasn’t even dramatic enough to be worth mentioning.  Later, when sharing his own testimony, Saul, who was then named Paul, said that Ananias was simply one of those ‘devout’ persons who always followed and ‘observed the law’ and was ‘highly respected’ (Acts 22: 12), but we know of no ‘dramatic’ conversion his life, nor do we hear of it in the story of many important followers of Jesus either.    

I don’t want to make much of Ananias’ reluctance to go to ‘lay hands on’ Saul,’  but what I do want us to understand today is what joins their stories together is not how they are converted, but their ‘obedience’.  Even though Ananias was reluctant, he obeyed God’s voice to go to Saul.  Even though Saul had been persecuting and murdering Christians, in a more dramatic way, Saul was becoming obedient too.   The ‘how’ of our conversion is not the important thing.  That we become ‘obedient’ followers of Jesus, is what always matters most.

Obedience is what conversion is finally about, isn’t it?   And I love the fact that the street that both Saul and Ananias ended up on was called ‘straight street’.  The name of this street serves a wonderful ‘metaphor’ for the kind of ‘street’ the gospel calls us all to walk on, a street where we walk ‘straighter’, ‘better’, more purposefully, intentionally, and honestly.  It is a street where we all walk to listen and to hear God’s voice, obey his will, and walk ‘straight’ toward God’s purposes of God for our life in the world.  As I used to hear a Pentecostal preacher say once to his audience, who had a tendency toward getting emotional:  “It doesn’t matter how high you jump, but how straight you walk when you hit the ground!”

So here’s my point; whether your conversion story is very ‘dramatic’ or ‘interesting’ or whether is ‘vanilla’, ‘boring’ and uninteresting, the ‘kind’ of conversion you have is never as important at the kind of life you are living and the way you are living to obey God’s voice today.  And this is exactly where the story of Saul’s conversion concludes, when Ananias goes to him, and after laying hands on him, we read how, ‘immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again (18)”  Then, it says, ‘he got up, and was baptized…(18), and he ’, took some food  and ‘regained his strength (19)’ so that he began immediately ‘to preach Christ in the synagogues that he is the Son of God’ (20).

The great thing about Saul’s conversion story, is not how it happened, but that this was not the end of Saul’s story, only the beginning.  As the Lord told Ananias, “…For he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (16).  The story of Saul’s conversion to become ‘the apostle’ Paul, has only just begun and his conversion to Christ is ‘to be continued’, as the old TV sitcoms, used to say. 

Perhaps this is what makes a ‘conversion’ story most important; not what happened then, once upon a time, in an instant, or why back when, but that the story continues today.  I don’t know what your ‘conversion’ story is, and it would be good for you to learn to share it, especially with those who haven’t had such an experience. 

But still, what matters most, even to that person who hears about it, for you to prove that it is real, is not just be able to say what happened, but to show, and share also, what is happening right now—how you are living your life and seeking to obey God’s voice—right now?   We have been converted to follow Jesus, either suddenly, or quietly, but the process of conversion, of regeneration, and of transformation, to be the person or the people God has called us to be,  for it to be real, must be a story that ‘still continues’.

Not long ago, Christianity Today, a magazine Billy Graham helped to established had on it’s cover a ‘lynching’ rope….  That ‘rope’ was put on that cover because America, and Christians too, especially Christians in America, still need to be converted.  That ‘rope’ was put there to get you to read the ‘lead’ article about one of America’s newest Museums, a Museum just recently established in Montgomery Alabama, that remembers and memorializes the 4400 African Americans who were unfairly, and unjustly arrested and lynched because of their race, not because of their crime.  You will find 800 Steel columns in that museum, representing the 800 counties where this lynching took place.  You’ll also find the names of those victims; like ‘General Lee’, a black man from Reidsville, SC, who was arrested and lynched for ‘knocking on a white man’s door’.  You’ll also read the name of “Jessie Thornton” in Lavern, Alabama, was lynched for failing to address a white policeman as ‘sir’.  Jeff Brown is also listed, as a man from Cedar Bluff, Mississippi, who accidentally bumped into a white woman while trying to get on a train. 

In his book, about his work racial reconciliation,  Lawyer Brian Stevenson, tells that the aim of his work is not to punish people who were wrong, but to invite people toward ‘conversion’ which leads to redemption and liberation.  If we will do the ‘hard part’ of acknowledging our wrongs, then the way of reconciliation and justice can become ‘real’ in our world too. 

The way this conversion can begin, says Stevenson, is when the counties, like Mecklenburg, and others, will come together to accept and receive their steel column and bring them home to acknowledge what has happened in the past, and to commit to a better future, together; with fairness and justice for all.  He says, only when we are awakened, disturbed, and re-oriented toward a different way, can we be truly converted to live in that new way.  Sometimes the way of conversion is sudden and dramatic; and other times the way is slower and long.  The point is that our need of conversion continues, so that God can continue to open up new ways toward the future that belongs to those who will allow God open and challenge our hearts toward the love that can still make us into the people God has called us to be.   Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

“As They Traveled Along …”

A sermon based upon Acts 8: 26-40
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  October 28th,  2018 
(10-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

Do you like to travel?  If you do, where would you like to travel to?  Paris, Rome, Hawaii, Jerusalem, or perhaps China?  I’ve been to a few of those places, but would have liked to have visited some others.  What would be your dream destination?  Maybe you just would like some time off in the mountains or at the beach?  But today is Sunday, and you are at church.  Could there be another way to answer this question.

Spiritually speaking, we are all on a journey.   This is part of what it means to be a human being, isn’t it?  Even for those who don’t think much about religion or about the meaning of life, but are more focused on the day to day matters of survival, your life is still a journey.  It is a journey because it has a starting place and a destination, which is the birth you had, and the death that still out there on every human horizon.  My job, as your pastor, is to help you keep your eyes on the ‘wheel of life’ so that you don’t get too distracted or don’t miss the view, but to also help you to keep focus toward the ‘horizon’ that is out there, somewhere, for us all.

Helping us to gain and keep our focus and perspective on what matters most in life, is what today’s story from Acts is all about.   It’s a rather strange, but also a very interesting story, giving us very specific details of the work of one of the very first Christian evangelists, named Philip.  It was Philip who gave the very first Christian directions for traveling down the road of life.

If you’re like me, you’re not fond of asking directions, but don’t we all have to figure this one out, whether we actually ask someone or not?  Don’t we all live such short, limited, temporary lives, that we need some kind of pointers or perspectives on what matters and what doesn’t, before we get so far down the road, that we miss the right turn, and end up lost? 

How I want us to take this ‘journey’ with Philip, is to follow three simple, but very important life questions which appear in this story.   We will take them one at a time, and try to decipher not just what they meant for Philip and the person he met on the road, but we will try to think about what asking the right questions and seeking good directions might mean also for us.
The very first question that appears in this story, comes after Philip is instructed by ‘an angel’ to go ‘south’ to the ‘desert road’ that goes ‘down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  It was while we was going down on this ‘desert road’ toward the costal lands, that Philip ‘met’ and sees ‘an important official in charge of all the treasury’ of ‘the Ethiopians’. 

Evidently Philip passes the man, since they are both going ‘down from Jerusalem’.  What is most important however, is not how they met but what the ‘eunuch’ was doing.  He was sitting in his chariot, ‘reading’ from the Book of Isaiah the prophet.  

The most important part about this ‘journey’ of life is that we learn to ‘read’ so that we can seriously consider some of the greatest thoughts and ideas the world has ever known.  While most of us will never read all the great classics of literature, most all of us have access to the most important book, The Bible.   It is the one book you don’t want to leave on the shelf. 

Now, of course, as your pastor, having studied the Bible all my life, I would advocate you learning it and learning from it, but this story reminds us that we also often need to reconsider what makes the Bible so important a book for living?  In a world with so much information, filled with video clips and moving pictures, what makes the Bible a book still need to understand?  

Well, right here is the main issue, right in this question which Philip asks this eunuch.  Philip asks him ‘do you understand what you are reading’.  No matter how good, how holy, or how historically or religiously important the Bible is, it really can’t speak to your life, and this journey we are all on, unless we all have some ‘understanding’ of it.  You can read the Bible all your life, know the verses and chapters from cover to cover, or from Genesis to Maps, as someone put it, and not fully ‘understand’ or ‘overlook’ the importance or the message being expressed.

You’ve known people like that, haven’t you?  People who know all the words in the Bible fairly well, even sometimes very well, but still miss the main message.  They are like the proverbial people who can’t see the ‘forest for the trees’.  They get hooked, confused, or misled by the little things, even interesting things, but they still fail to see the most important message that matters for both religion and in life.   

The other day I was speaking to someone about a childhood friend of mine was once mislead by a well-meaning pastor and left the church.  I don’t blame everything on the pastor, who was only speaking his mind, but I do think the pastor missed his opportunity preach want mattered most, when he once got side-tracked in his desire to preach the truth.  Instead of preaching the Bible, however, the pastor started making judgement calls about science, a field of study that was not his expertise, and he made some very sharp judgement calls about how the Bible was right, and Science was wrong.  Now, this may have been a message most of the congregation wanted to hear, but unfortunately, there were young minds, who were being educated in school, who were also learning other views of science at that time, which did not necessarily opposed the Bible, but this preacher thought it did and made it sound like they did. 

What happened after hearing that sermon, was that the young student, decided that since the Bible had to be right or Science had to be right, but they couldn’t both have something ‘right’ to say, he decided to go with Science, and he never looked back.  I tried to convince him otherwise.  But it didn’t work.  Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, that young student needed the Bible, and the church too, which might have helped him overcome a lot that school couldn’t help with, but forced to choose, because of a zealous misunderstanding not only of Science, but through a missing of the main message of Scripture, that young man, now an older man, is broken and angry, and still hasn’t found his way back to God or to a church. 

 So, let me ask you, seriously, respectfully, and also importantly, as a matter of life and death: Do you know what you are reading?  You’ve been reading the Bible for years and years, but have you understood what’s it’s really about?  Don’t get me wrong, I know that many people get confused about the Bible, and many people make wrong conclusions about it and with it.  The existence of a man reading the Bible in that chariot, and us having the Bible in our world, still raises a most important question thinking people still need to ask:  Is the Bible worth reading?  Does the Bible really have something important to say in our world and for this time?

The question helps to keep our focus.  It’s not the evangelist who is asking the right question, but it is reader: ‘Who?’  Who is the prophet talking about?
You never get to the right way to read or understand Scripture until to start asking about the question about ‘Who?’  “Who is the prophet talking about?.  Who will always take us in the right direction we read start to read this book.

To help us find our focus, let’s follow exactly what the eunuch must have been reading.  There is a lot in the words in the book and prophecy of Isaiah, just like there is a lot in the whole Bible, but we get to the point quickly when we get to the question of ‘who’? 

Here, the Eunuch was talking about someone ‘who’ was living and dying in ‘humiliation’ and ‘being deprived of justice’ and having his ‘life taken from the earth’.  Now, that’s the kind of ‘who’ who will always get your attention, isn’t it?  Most all the stories worth telling and stories worth hearing are told, whether in books or at the movies, are told about people who struggle in this world, just like most all of us do, in some way, shape, or form.  

Specifically, the ‘who’ Isaiah was writing about was about ‘who’ Israel, God’s people, had been all their history.  They had been a people who, like Jacob, had ‘struggled’ and ‘wrestled’ with God, but what did they really have to show for it?  Don’t you and I feel this way too, sometimes?  Don’t we all wonder why we are here, what’s it’s all about, and who we are supposed to be, as much as we try to be somebody, either by becoming who we are or by becoming better than we are?

The question of human identity is one of very important questions that has been answered by the Bible, not just for Israel, but also for us.  We are humans created in the image of God, and we are called to be God’s people, these are the kinds of answers the Bible gives, but why should we believe it?  Why should we take Isaiah’s picture of human suffering and struggle seriously in history, or for our own life?

This is the question the Eunuch goes on to become more specific about, isn’t it?  “Please tell me, he asks, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  Well, the true answer is that the prophet was talking about both, himself and someone else.   The prophet was talking about the unfairness, the injustice, and the suffering that comes with life for all of us, whether we consider ourselves religious or not.  But Philip goes on to help this Eunuch realize how the story of all our human suffering has been fully and finally answered in ‘the good news about Jesus’.

Here is where we come to the most important message in not only this story, but also the most important story in whole story of the Bible.  The Bible would have probably been a story forgotten many years ago, had the Old Testament not been amazingly and dramatically been fulfilled in the New Testament story about Jesus.  You simply can’t have one part of the story without the other.  You can’t understand the New Testament without the Old Testament, and the Old Testament, which is most of the Bible, ceases have any kind of lasting hope for the whole world, without the fulfilment it finds in the ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  How can we grasp this story in a few words.  We probably can’t.  But we can discover the ‘who’ of the story.  The ‘who’ of God’s whole story is good news about Jesus, who is the Christ.  He is not just ‘the Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ for Israel, but he is, because God raised him from the dead, he is the rejected Jewish Messiah, who is God’s ‘who’, that is God’s Christ, for the the salvation of the whole world.

Now, I know you know this, at least here in this church, you hear this preached every Sunday, is some form or another, but what does it mean for me, for you, or the church, and for the world to know that the Scripture is not just mostly, but is only about the ‘good news’ about Jesus?  How can we dare explain this to a world that thinks it knows and has decided already what it wants to believe and what it thinks this means?

When I follow this story, just as it was told, I discover something very important about learning the Bible and learning about Jesus.  According to the flow of this story, just like this Eunuch, you really can’t learn ‘what’ or ‘who’ the Bible is about, unless you ‘involve’ yourself in the story of Jesus in the Bible. 

Now, don’t misunderstand.  This doesn’t mean you have to become ‘Jesus’, but it does mean you have to find a way to explore the message and meaning of Jesus.  Answering the Bible’s most important questions and answers about Jesus in your own life, means that you are ready to follow Jesus with your whole life and for your whole life.  This is exactly what the Eunuch meant when he said, “Look, here is water, what stands in the way of me being baptized?”  By asking this third question, the Eunuch not only understands what he Bible says, he also now knows what the Bible means. 

In response to his ‘understanding’ the chariot was stopped (did you realize they were already riding together?) and both Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch went down to the water and he was Baptized.  They didn’t just, as the song says in the musical, ‘go down to the river to pray’, but the Eunuch went down to the river (or whatever kind of water it was), so that he could live a life with purpose, on purpose, living and dying with hope, because this is the what the Bible’s message about Jesus is about.   Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

“He Kept Back Part of the Money…”

A sermon based upon Acts 4: 32- 5:11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 30th,,  2018 
(5-14) Sermon Series: Church: Then and Now

What tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” 

Sounds like Shakespeare, but it’s not.  It’s Sir Walter Scott from a play he wrote way back, around 1800, about a love triangle where people were deceiving each other.  That’s play was written a long time ago, but the realities of life haven’t changed that much.  People still weave tangled webs of deception and deceit.   And there is nothing more painful to the Christian witness, than people who pretend to be something they are not.

As I was sitting down to work on this message, new came out that Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Church, one of the very first, and one of the leading, model contemporary churches, admitted sexual misconduct allegations against him.   It reminds us again, that Christian are sinners, with weaknesses, failures, and flaws, just like everyone else.  But still, when a prominent, well-known, and trusted church leader falls it hurts all churches.  And the greatest hurt is not the failure, it is the ‘deception’.  Some Christians leader is trusted, but the truth has to be told to them instead of them telling the truth to us.

Years ago, when Pat Buchanan was running for president, he encouraged everyone to buy American, even while he was driving a foreign car. What he said and told people to do was not what he did. The press pointed out the deception and the hypocrisy. It’s not the fault of the press when they point out human hypocrisy, whether it be political, religious or any other.  And, even though it is just a small percentage who ‘weave’ this ‘tangled web’ of deception and lies, it is the lies that get all the coverage.

Perhaps this helps us understand why, in our text today, Peter did not put up with any kind of ‘deception’ when it came to the church’s early witness.  When Peter realized that Ananias was pretending to give ‘all’ the proceeds, but was holding back, he confronted him saying, “Ananias, why have you lied to the Holy Spirit?” (v. 3)…”What made you think of doing such a thing?”  “You have not just lied to human beings, but you have lied to God? (v.4).   Realizing that he has been ‘caught’ in a lie, we read that ‘immediately’ Ananias ‘fell down and died’! (v. 5).
What is a story where God strikes people dead without any chance of forgiveness, grace, or mercy mean in a gospel of God’s love?  Surely, we all know that people lie to God or deceive people in much worst ways all the time and God doesn’t strike them down.  Just what kind of story is this?

In order to understand, it helps to go back to the beginning of this story which really started back in the last chapter.   Here, the text describes some of the rather extraordinary events taking place.  These were not ‘normal’ days.  The Spirit was a work in some ‘white-hot’ ways, and people were very open and receptive.   In this particular moment, after being arrested for preaching, Peter and John had just been released.  As they returned, earth-shaking miracles of healing were taking place.  The apostles preached with even more ‘boldness’ and the ‘multitude’ of believers were ‘of one heart and soul’.  They had ‘all things common’ (31-32) because ‘great grace was upon them all’ (33).

We should understand that this is not just a repeat picture of the church filled with the Spirit in Acts 2, but here, in Acts 4, we see an amplification of growth along with even greater trust and unity.  Perhaps the most revealing indicator of this new spiritual situation is displayed as ‘all who had possessions’ (34), including a prominent Levite named Joses, nicknamed Barnabas (son of encouragement), ‘sold‘ material goods and brought ‘money’ and ‘laid it at the apostles’ feet’(Acts 4:35, 37).  Barnabas was one of the most important new Christians in the early church, who went on to encourage Paul and become a missionary himself.  He was also role model of generosity, inspiring others to share in the community of caring, sharing, and giving.

Karl Marx, the founder of communism, said that all human attitudes could be traced to economics and material concerns.  Acts is certainly not preaching communism, but Acts is proclaiming what community looks like when a change of heart is proven to be real as the desire for material treasures and wealth is transformed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 13:34).  When the church ‘laid’ their ‘money’ ‘at the apostle’s feet’ we see outward proof of the inward conversion of soul by the change of attitude with the ‘pocketbook.’  As Martin Luther said, ‘there are three conversions necessary for every person: the head, the heart, and the purse.’
On the wall of Lyndon Johnson's White House office hung a framed letter written more than 100 years earlier by General Sam Houston to Johnson's great-grandfather Baines. Sam Houston's signature makes the letter valuable, but the story behind it is much more significant. You see, Mr. Baines is the man who led Sam Houston to Christ. The General was a changed man, no longer coarse and belligerent, but peaceful and content.

The day came for Sam Houston to be baptized - an incredible event in the eyes of those who knew his previous lifestyle and attitude. After the baptism, Sam said he would like to pay half of the local minister's annual salary. When someone asked him why, his simple response was, "My pocketbook was baptized too." (Randy C. Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989).

We must not quickly pass over this image of ‘money’ and ‘possessions’ being ‘laid at the apostle’s feet’.  It is the key to understanding what happens next with Ananias and Sapphira.  This gift of ‘goods’ was a vivid picture of humble submission of heart, since gifts normally given to a King or Lord were not placed in their ‘hands’ but were ‘laid at their feet’.  This signifies the spiritual ‘Lordship’ of Jesus Christ now entering the material world as human ‘pocketbooks’ were being impacted. 

Most importantly, this was not commanded, coerced or forced, but it was a a ‘voluntary’, ‘willing’ and Spirit-guided response made from grateful and generous hearts.  The generosity of God’s grace gave shape to what ‘life together’ was supposed to mean when people are genuinely inspired by a generosity of ‘sharing’ rather than the succumbing to the greed of ‘taking’.

It was in the context of this new, ideal, spiritual reality, that Ananias ‘lies to the Holy Spirit’ (3) and thus, lies ‘to God’ (4). As Ernest Becker noted, when trust in God erodes, as it has in our Western culture too, money assumes a god-like quality in our lives.’   When money becomes ‘god-like’ we try to assure our immortality with things and all kinds of stuff, rather than by living in the Spirit that calls us to live with faith, hope, and love.

In the teachings of Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel, Money is not a sign of ‘divine approval’, but money is a danger.   When you understand just how much Jesus spoke about money, you realize that riches can become the number one challenge to living a Christian life.  Jesus called the man with money ‘the Rich Fool’ (Luke 12: 16-21) and Jesus also said it is ‘hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ or ‘heaven’ (Like 18:24, Matt. 19:23).   (Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 52-53). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”, we have all heard from the Scriptures.  Of course, money is not evil in and of itself, since we all need some money to live, but the ‘love of money’ or ‘love for’ money, as we might express it today, is still ‘the root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim. 6:10).  This happens because money becomes the way we deceive our hearts into thinking things are good and right, when they really aren’t. Even worse, when we love money, we can deceive our hearts into the terrible idolatry of thinking we can control our own destiny or save our own souls.  This was exactly the ‘deception’ of the ‘rich fool’ who built bigger barns, thinking he could ensure his future, but then right after building them, thinking he had many years left, he died unexpectedly (Luke 12:20).

Who knows what the exact rationalization Ananias had for his deception, which his wife went along with?   Whatever it was, it was such a ‘tangled web’ of deception that when they both were confronted, at different times, they were so ‘twisted up’ into this ‘knot’ of lies, that their lives were ‘cut off’ by God’s truth, and they died.   This story sounds harsh and cruel, since both had no chance to repent, but the point of the story is not what God did to them, but what they did to themselves.  This is how quickly and suddenly death can come when we ‘weave’ the ‘tangled web of deceit.’

We should never be surprised or have any illusions about what people can do to themselves or to each other.  We humans can be more savage than animals and beasts.  Nothing in nature is so well equipped for hurting or hating as a human person. Psalm 139:14 has the Psalmist saying: "I praise you, O God, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." We are wonderfully made, but we are also fearfully made. Confuse and frighten us and we will lash out at anything. Crowd us and we will rob and destroy. Deprive us and we will retaliate. Impoverish us and we will burn down our own cities in the night. Excite us, frighten us, anger us in a crowd and we can become more devastating than swarms of locusts or herds of animals. We are made as free beings in who are also capable of great harm.

Harold Warlick, retired pastor in Blowing Rock used to be Chaplain at High Point University.  He’s been associated with campus ministry or churches near university campuses for many years.  Sometimes he taught an honors section of a religion course.  But, he once told, he also had nineteen of his former students go to prison. Those nineteen would have make a great class all by themselves. They were academically as bright and capable as any honors class.  Why did they go to prison?  Their reasons were varied: one strangled her own baby, newly delivered in the residence hall shower, and hid it in a shoe box in her closet; one murdered his girlfriend with a shotgun; another robbed one of her city's pharmacies in broad daylight.  He  said that after being a pastor and college chaplain, that he now had no idealistic illusions about human nature.  The line of good and evil goes right down the middle of all of us.  Even good, talented, wealthy, decent humans are capable of doing anything, either to themselves or to others.

Perhaps the greatest illusion in human life is money.  And to believe that we can bring security to ourselves is the ‘ultimate idol’, Luther said.  Some of us are willing to exchange anything---our family, our health, our church, the or even the truth, for a taste of security.  This is why the church, through the preaching of Peter, confronts this ‘lie’ of ‘tangled deceit’ with the gospel truth that there are only ‘two ways’ that are very different: one leads to life and the other leads to death. 

The church was called to take the road that leads to life and to become an ‘alternative’, ‘witnessing’ community in the world, as a fellowship ‘filled with the Spirit’ who have decided to live differently because we take the ‘road less traveled’ which ‘makes all the difference’ in who we are and who we become.  Such a newly born church had to confront the lies, the deceit, the greed and the self-serving attitude of people like Ananias and Sapphira, or it would have meant the death of the church even before it got stared (Here, in 5:11 Acts uses the term ‘church’ for the first time).  The book of James (1: 9-11; 2: 1-7) reminds us that other congregations were actually destroyed by the failure of Christians to keep riches, money and wealth under the control of the Spirit. 

It was upon this occasion of someone trying ‘to have their cake and eat it too’, that the first Christians realized it wasn’t just about sharing and caring, but that they were also called to be community of ‘truthfulness’.  In fact, you don’t really ‘care’ when you avoid the truth or try to live a lie.

In this story of Acts, Luke paints an overly positive picture of the early church community, but it is not any kind of romanticized, idealized, or imaginary portrait.  While there is ‘boldness’ in preaching and the frequent occurrences of miracles, these are still real people who are pulled in different directions by the same real tendencies which tug at us still today. “These are real congregations where, on any Sunday, one is apt to meet both faithfulness and foolishness seated beside one another on the third pew from the left” (From W. Willimon).

There is a well-known story about a preacher that went out to talk to a hard-hearted man about his soul and was trying to get him into church.  The man just sat there with an expressionless face listening to him, not making any response whatsoever as the preacher presented the gospel.  Finally, with a look of disdain, thinking he would brush the pastor off, he said, "Well, preacher, I hear you have a lot of hypocrites in your church.
The pastor shot back, and said, "John, you're right, we do have a lot of hypocrites in the church."  Then he paused and put his hand on the man's shoulders and said, "But John, there's always room for one more” (As told by James Merrit)."  
The fact of the matter is, there's a little bit of hypocrisy in all of us.  We too are real people struggling to be faithful in a world which where faithfulness is difficult and challenging. There will be disappointments, unpleasantness, disputes, and some who put their hand to the plow will look back. (See Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 55). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Sometimes, those who are look back, or who fail to tell the truth, or play games with God, and are the Ananiases and Sapphiras of the church are us.  But thank God, Jesus not only died for Peter, James and John, he died also for Ananias and Sapphira, as Jesus also died for us.  Through this tragic story, God’s keeps telling us the truth so that we don’t make the same mistake of living and dying by our own lie.  Amen