Cloaks, boots and sandals

Like facing up to a buzz-saw, a wood-chipper, or a phalanx of Wehrmacht soldiers at the Atlantic wall, Stephen testified to the truth of the gospel before the Sanhedrin, in whose hands lay life and death.

The church was growing in Jerusalem. The Believers needed men of wisdom and filled with the Spirit to give their attention to the distribution of food to widows, to make sure that there was no favouritism and that everything was fair. Stephen was recognised as being highly qualified and was commissioned to serve in the church.

Stephen also captured the attention of some bad hombres. Opposition from the Synagogue of the Freedmen. For those who know what cancel culture is in 2021, these guys targeted Stephen to be cancelled.

They couldn’t stop the wonders he performed by God’s power. They couldn’t refute the wisdom that he spoke by God’s Spirit. So they targeted the man.

The same tactic that they had used against Christ. A set-up. A sandbag operation. Accusations of blasphemy.

There they were, gnashing their teeth, enraged at what Stephen was saying. And they took off their cloaks.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+7%3A57+-+58&version=NIV

When guys take of their cloaks and its not because its a hot day or they’re going for a swim, its because stuff is about to get real. Violence is loading. Action is imminent.

If you’re really angry, perhaps a cloak is the last thing you think about, but they took off their cloaks and laid them down at the feet of young Saul of Tarsus.

Many years later, a changed man, the apostle Paul is in Jerusalem, speaking before a crowd of his fellow Jews. He’s telling them what God is doing, and he actually references Stephen.

“20 And when the blood of your martyr[a] Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’

21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”” (Acts 22: 20 – 22, NIV).

God sending His word to the Gentiles? Again the cloaks come flying off.

Paul had been there, done that, but on the other side of the distribution of rage and violence. I’m certain Paul appreciated the irony.

There’s an image I think of when I read about Paul and what he did. When Stephen was murdered, we read that it was on that same day that ‘a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem’ (Acts 8:1). And Saul ‘began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.’ (Acts 8:3)

I’m sure Paul never forgot the way he had behaved. Dragging people off to prison while little children begged for him not to take away their Mom or Dad.

Although he meant it in a different context (of tyrannical fascist governments in the future) George Orwell spoke about imagining a ‘boot stamping on the human face’.

At one time, that was Saul. Or at least that was probably the way he saw himself.

What a difference between Saul and Paul, persecutor and apostle after his encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus…

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=isaiah+52%3A7&version=NIV

Paul had this verse in mind (the feet of those who bring good news) when he wrote to the church at Ephesus about spiritual warfare.

The Christian response to the boot of the oppressor is not to strike back. Paul writes that people are not the enemy, but spiritual forces of evil.

We are prepared with the armour of God…the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness…feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

“The gospel provides the footing for everything we do. However powerful the rest of your body is, if you are wounded in your feet you are easy prey for the enemy.”

Ephesians Chapter 6

Standing on the Word is not just a charming saying. Without it, we are literally hamstrung in the thick of the fight.

In conclusion

The conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Romans rings so true. He easily lists the names of people who have been a blessing to him, those who have laboured and put their hands up for the gospel.

Then you have those fifth-columnists who wish to sabotage things for their own purposes. Those who cause divisions and are contrarian.

People who have an agenda that attempts to undo all the work that faithful Believers have put into advancing the kingdom.

Those types of people are inevitable, no matter where you are.

Some people just like to see things burn, or stir up controversy and step back and watch the fur fly.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+16%3A17+-+20&version=NIV

Paul knows the church at Rome has done okay with nipping that sort of thing in the bud: “Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” (16:19, NIV).

They’ve managed to keep things right and go forward in obedience to the gospel, but Paul writes to them to make sure they don’t fixate on the evil that some are spreading in the community, but to remain resolute and anchored to the gospel.

The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.

Basically, they should know the truth so intimately that they would easily be able to spot the fake. Kind of like the US Secret Service who don’t study fake dollar bills, but study genuine dollar bills with such thoroughness that fakes are easy to spot.

Be excellent at what is good, and innocent of evil.

Paul writes that God will soon cruch Satan and his deception under their feet.

The church should do what Adam and Eve didn’t do in the garden. When confronted with falsehood and doubt, to refer back to the gospel and affirm it. A regained innocence as it were.

Paul concludes reminding the Romans – and us – that God is able to establish us in accordance with the gospel. He will make us able to stand firm in Christ.

The church shouldn’t be distracted by controversies and divisions. The gospel is what unites us but is also the purpose of the church: to reach out to those who will be saved in the purpose of God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+10%3A14+-+15&version=NIV

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. The sound of the church on the move spreading the gospel.

Boston Strong

Which city’s iconography, history and brand is number one?

Whenever people think of the United States and the iconography of great cities, New York probably ranks up high with the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and the Chrysler building, just a few of the many landmarks.

[Taps microphone] The city of Boston would like to go ahead and disagree. When it comes to baseball, New York and Boston are fierce rivals, in the best tradition of sport rivalries.

The New York Yankee versus the Boston Red Sox.

There’s a little pub under the stands at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox with the unimaginative name of ‘Bleacher Bar’ where the customer can sit and enjoy and brat or a burger with an ale and watch the action through a window.

This April 15th, it will be 8 years since the infamous bombings that took place at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

The people of Boston are a resilient bunch. And stubborn in the best traditions of colonial resistance to old King George.

In December 1773, the Sons of Liberty, in protest of excessive taxation without representation, dumped tea belonging to the Dutch East India company into the harbour.

A little thing that history came to call the Boston Tea Party. One of the key factors that led to the Revolutionary war a short while later.

Which the British went on to lose.

This April 15th, I’m thinking about the resilient people of Boston, generously sprinkled with Irish.

I’m thinking about St Paddy’s day festivities which are best revelled in without lockdown restrictions.

I’m thinking about simple pleasures like enjoying a burger while watching live sport.

Something called living.

Names in a letter

Concluding his letter to the Roman believers, Paul writes (Romans 16:1 – 16) about his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ by name:

Phoebe, a deaconess, possible the carrier of Paul’s very letter to Rome.

Priscilla and Aquila, a couple who risked their lives for Paul, inseparable in their marriage and ministry. They had a church that met in their house and you can’t imagine that no-one had heard of them. A mama and papa hen with a heaving nest of chicks.

The household of Aristobulus, from which we may infer that there were a bunch of Christians in this man’s household, but not Aristobulus himself. If so, he was almost certainly the subject of an army of loving prayer warriors on their knees for his salvation.

Rufus, a man chosen in the Lord. Not too many guys with the name Rufus out there. Perhaps its old fashioned and currently only the choice of hipsters for their children. But Paul knew Rufus and he was known to the Lord as well.

A lot of people get a mention. Enough names that if Paul were accepting an award at the Oscars, the band would begin playing their musical cue for him to start wrapping things up. Paul could probably have crammed in some more names, but he goes on to mention brothers and sisters whose lives and service may not otherwise be noted by historians, but were noticed by him: Herodian (a relative), Tryphena and Tryphosa (who worked hard in the Lord), Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, Olympas and all the saints with him.

I doubt I would ever be in the same position as Paul, looking back on years of ministry of having established numerous churches in faraway places and looking now to Christians battling it out in the belly of the beast, writing an epistle and encouraging them as a spiritual mentor.

Nobody writes actual letters anymore. If, however, I ever had to pen a letter to Believers, somewhere I would mention those I had thought about, those who had made an impression on me.

Although, in this thought-experiment, I wouldn’t be constrained by a point of time or local geography.

Seasoned and solid saints like John Martin, Cliffy Rutter, John Schultz, Granny Louise.

Pastors at whose feet I have been taught: Noel, Pedro, Wolfie, Mark.

A list of years in the making, of Christians who have built into my life whether personally, lyrically or electronically: Brian, R.C. Sproul, Louie Giglio, Steven Curtis Chapman, Chris Tomlin, Aaron Shus.

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, Iranian believers whose testimony I listened to recently, and took me into Evin prison with those persecuted for their faith.

Captive In Iran

Philip Yancy and J.I. Packer who opened up my mind to see God in unexpected places and with systematic focus.

As Paul had impacted the lives of Christians, so others had impacted his life. This is why we gather together. This is why we need church.

Straight line

In the build-up to Easter, seems like every year there are reminders of the human condition. Incidents that are like the proverbial indiscretion in the drinking water (to make reference to a not so subtle Afrikaans idiom).

I can draw a straight line from Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden to the news this past week: a Syrian immigrant arrested for going on a rampage and killing ten in Boulder, Colorado; two teens who were taken into custody for jacking the car of a man working as an über driver in D.C, driving off with him holding on and crashing, with the driver succumbing to his injuries; Islamic militants launching attacks in Mozambique with the intent to cause death, and succeeding, taking lives including that of a young South African.

Of course there wouldn’t be all kittens and rainbows just prior to Easter, and maybe I notice it more, but it seems like the craziness ticks up just a notch.

Draw a line back in time from these deaths and it terminates at the fall of man.

A lie.

An ambition to be like God, knowing good and evil.

A bite of forbidden fruit.

A realisation that innocence is dead.

A judgement.

A line from one of my favourite poems: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

From one sin, many millions: rampaging killers, spouse abusers, callous teens, unholy warriors, political leaders with lying tongues and cold hearts, wannabe dictators, habitual swindlers.

An illustration of why Good Friday was necessary.

I think back to Adam’s fall:

A realisation that innocence is dead. Trying to imagine what it would have been like. Thinking of a time you received shocking news and its like reality and unreality merge, things don’t compute and your ears resonate with a high-pitched humming and all words fail except the worst ones.

The morning after where the sun didn’t shine as it once did. Food is just sustenance instead of a delight of tastes. There’s a chill in the air that wasn’t there before.

I can just imagine. And realizing nakedness, knowing that the authentic man cannot walk the earth anymore, things must be hidden because there is shame.

God sacrificing an animal to make a cover for Adam & Eve’s nakedness.

Sacrifice as a payment for sin. A system that emerges pointing the way to a cross.

A straight line that connects me to both, the fall of Adam and the sacrifice of Christ.

A straight line, and a new creation – a new man.

His body and blood, broken and poured out for us.

Boasting

In the 15th chapter of Romans, Paul is writing to the church, explaining how his being a minister to the Gentiles was entirely God’s grace, and that those who believed because of his preaching would be his offering back to God.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+15%3A15+-+16&version=NIV

Paul then says in the next verse “…I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God” (15:17, NIV). Other translations have that Paul has reason to be enthusiastic (NLT), or reason to be proud (RSV), or proud (The Message). The idea is that Paul writes that he has a reason to boast about what God has done though him among the Gentiles.

This may seem to be a square peg in a round hole. Doesn’t God reject the proud? Isn’t boasting wrong?

People boast in the things that will give them attention: wealth, strength, power, virility, talent.

If I could presume to put myself in his shoes, Paul’s view of himself and his service to God was likely formed by his life, the mistakes that he made (zealously persecuting Christ), the knowledge how sinful his flesh was, the power of God’s grace.

All of that taught him that his accomplishments and things that he could boast in were worth nothing. It wasn’t just an intellectual exercise, Paul learned the hard way that boasting in himself was futile.

When writing to the Philippians, Paul listed his pedigree only to immediately discard it as worthless:

Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, persecuting the church, a faultless follower of the Law. Garbage.

He wants to be found in Christ, that’s all.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=philippians+3%3A4+-+9&version=NIV

Paul knew his place. He hadn’t at the beginning. An encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, a long time of solitude thereafter, embracing the idea that he had been totally and zealously mistaken, facing intense opposition from his fellow Jews, physical attacks, the thorn in his flesh…Paul learned the hard way that there was nothing he could boast about, except in what Christ had done and was doing through him.

I’m not there yet. I like to cultivate my brand as being a somewhat clever, adequately cultured, witty bloke, fun at parties involving Trivial Pursuit.

Paul had no concern for that. I doubt a Paul transported by an accidental time machine to our age would have a social media footprint or be interested in politics, wokeness, entertainment, TikTok or funny cat videos.

Paul may have come across as serious, always talking about Christ, and what Christ had done through him.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome that “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (15:20, NIV)

Again, it wasn’t to boast about himself, that he Paul had established a church on his own, but to turn that into an offering that was pleasing to God.

So what was the Roman church to Paul? If he hadn’t established it, why did he want to go there so earnestly? From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, Paul had ‘fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ’. (15:19, NIV).

Paul had been a busy bee, he had done a ton of work in the region establishing churches, he had almost certainly heard of individual Christians in Rome and maybe it was time to do some encouraging.

https://www.preceptaustin.org/romans_1517

Minister to the Gentiles

I like how Paul draws our attention in Romans 15 to the idea that putting our attention on the God of hope, means that the differences between us (as human beings) become trivial.

Paul writes that God remembered his promises to the Jews and also intended that the Gentiles would be in a position to praise.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+15%3A8+-+13&version=NIV

God’s intent was always that both Jews and Gentiles would hope in Messiah, and that in believing there would be one body of Believers who sing praises.

Where we find ourselves in 2021 is a malicious media movement trying to emphasise the differences between people because its good for ratings and click-bait, and back in Paul’s day he’s referring to the major difference is his time – Jews and Gentiles – and writing that we should look at God, and these differences are nothing.

Paul was exactly the right type of guy to make this point. A zealous Jew, who after having been saved still had a deep love for his people, and yet God – in what may have seemed an irony from Paul’s point of view – called Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul stood at the crux of two worlds and pointed out that both needed Christ. In the light of salvation, in the light of needing Christ, all people are the same.

When we consume stories in the media highlighting the differences between the sexes, the races, positions on the political spectrum, its all trivial.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+3%3A26+-+29&version=NIV

In Paul’s day, some Rabbis were in the habit of a morning prayer that was popular. “According to William Barclay, in that prayer the Jewish man would thank God that he was not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Paul takes each of these categories and shows them to be equal in Jesus.”

Galatians Chapter 3

In the light of Christ, Paul writes that the differences between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, are irrelevant.

I would also like to add the the differences hyped between races are also trivial.

Looking to the God of hope gives us the correct perspective.

Watching over

The human race has been at war for millennia and whenever nations and kingdoms have established a professional base of soldiers, they have developed a code.

One of the consistent ones is that soldiers on guard duty are in a pile of trouble if they leave their post without being relieved or fall asleep.

We see this at Jesus’ resurrection. An angel appears in frightening, ethereal splendour and ‘The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.’ (Matthew 28:4, NIV)

Some of the soldiers on guard duty then conspired with the Jewish elders to craft a narrative and admit to their commander that they fell asleep while on watch and let the body of Christ be stolen.

They would have been in serious trouble but received a promise from the elders that they would intervene and keep the soldiers out of as much trouble as possible.

A certain amount of trouble would have been inevitable. The soldiers would have been punished, but they were paid ‘a large sum of money’ by the elders.

Compensation. For their trouble and the going rate for a false report.

Watchfulness is a discipline. And discipline is a constant in a professional unit. Falling asleep on duty is labelled a dereliction of duty according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The guys in the US Marines are pretty gung-ho about the code that they serve by and following orders. Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise starred in a little movie about that a while back.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104257/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

I was thinking about this by contrast this past week.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121&version=NIV

The Lord is watching over the Psalmist. Watching over Israel. Watching over us, His children.

The keeper of Israel or the single soul.

He never falls asleep on duty.

As for me and my house

A lot of people put stock in the idea that things come in threes. Good things, bad things. I must confess that when twos happen, I expect a three.

Its not often that things truly happen in threes. This past week, the people of New Zealand experienced three earthquakes affecting their island, with the last measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2021/03/04/new-zealand-earthquake-tsunami-warning-issued-coastal-areas/6918719002/

A cursory search of the internet seems to debunk the idea that things truly happen in threes.

https://www.seeker.com/do-bad-things-really-come-in-3s-1792581105.html

Basically, as human beings we look for patterns to assign meaning to randomness. The term coined for this is apophenia. And you get the impression if we resort to this type of thing too often we stray into the realm of believing conspiracy theories. Or Bible codes with hidden meanings.

I’ll buy that.

But what are the odds that this past week, while navigating through the internet and social media, that I simply happened across the same verse? No less than three times. Precisely three times.

Random events may have synchronicity but no message. Bad things that happen in threes may make me feel unfortunate, or good things that happen in threes may make me feel fortunate.

The same verse three times is less likely to be randomness. But if it is, its still Scripture, all of which is God-breathed and useful.

I was strolling down memory lane with Carman songs and re-discovered one that I really liked: ‘Serve the Lord’.

Then I’m listening to this guy named Joshua Aaron, and he has a song about Joshua’s exhortation to Israel, to choose whom they will serve, but as for Joshua, he and his family are going to serve the Lord.

Really, I wasn’t looking specifically for this verse. And then I see on Instagram that Chris Tomlin and Pat Barrett have just put out a song: ‘As for for me (and my house).’

Is this random? Just perhaps. On the other hand, there is nothing more fundamental than choosing as a family to serve the Lord.

And this week, we had an evening Bible study. And it was very good.

Vault of my heart

What does it mean to hide God’s word in your heart?

Its one of my favourite verses in the longest psalm, Psalm 119. Its all about the vitality of God’s word and how essential it is for us to read it and live by it. 176 verses of reminding in case you forgot.

But hide it in my heart? How am I to do that? I like the way The Message gives me a fresh perspective because I dig idioms: “I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankrupt.”

The wording reminds me of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven, where neither thieves, nor rust can touch them.

Because of my connection to the world, my own sin, and other fallen people, circumstances and words can infiltrate deep inside me and eat away at the things that I’ve thought were untouchable. I need to internalise Scripture so deeply that nothing can touch that sacred place where I study it and it seeps through my skin and into my bones.

Once Scripture is part of me so deeply and fundamentally that its as good as part of my DNA, then I can draw on it to fight against sin. The Psalmist hid Scripture in his heart and he used it to resist sin.

Jesus was obviously immersed in Scripture, quoting it constantly. In fact, he quoted the book of Deuteronomy a lot. He quoted it when he was in the desert facing barrages of temptation from the enemy:

Man does not live on bread alone…
…Don’t put God to the test…
…Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.

Man does not live on bread alone…God humbles his people so that they will realise that they need God’s word more than anything else.

Don’t put God to the test…don’t doubt Him, or His love and concern for us. Kind of a refutation of Depeche Mode’s ‘blasphemous rumours’ (your 80’s cultural reference out of left field for the day).

Fear the Lord your God and serve Him only…He’s done it all for us so we should honour Him. Our way of life should be all about him.

I can’t just keep Scripture in the vault of my heart and keep it locked away. I find that when the vault stays locked for a while and I don’t venture inside to review Scriptural treasures, I’m more vulnerable to sin.
Sin: a game of whack-a-mole.

Scripture: a wooden hammer with heft that fits into my hand. Batter-up.