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“Want ad for an Apostle…” 

The Apostle Paul, from a 4th-century cave painting in Ephesus, Turkey.

If God ever wrote a want ad, looking for an apostle, maybe it would include some of the qualifications below.  That may seem like a silly idea, but it was a way to begin to appreciate the remarkable career of someone who changed the course of Christianity forever.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it years ago when I began to realize just what one person had accomplished and the extraordinary qualifications he brought to the work.   Many have requested this after hearing it in talks, so I hope you enjoy.    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (Matt. 9: 37).  Indeed!

  • Must have a practical trade whereby he can support himself and not be obligated to those he serves.
  • Must be able to relate to and interact with all classes and types of people, from philosophers (Mars Hill) to tradesmen (Ephesus silversmiths and tentmakers), to politicians, government officials, women, wealthy, poor and slaves.
  • Must have an ability and willingness for public speaking (including to crowds who don’t like the message) in an articulate, thoughtful, persuasive and heartfelt way.
  • Must have a working knowledge of Hebrew and know the Scriptures about Me collected by my people, Israel, as well as understand the culture of the Temple and synagogue in which they worship.
  • Must be able to speak and write Greek, the language that the educated Gentile world uses and understands.
  • Must have demonstrated the ability to work in My vineyard, study My Law, be obedient to My teachings as best they understand them.
  • Must be freeborn and have a passport, i.e. Roman citizenship, in order to move freely throughout My world,
  • Must have significant spiritual receptivity, conviction, courage, and trust in Me, not himself or his own intellect or willpower.
  • Must have enormous nurturing abilities to express patience, tenderness, and care for those who don’t always get it, who backslide, who need course correcting.
  • Must have enough life experience that he isn’t fooled by the ways of the tempter, and is able to discern between My voice and that of the carnal mind
  • Must have the faith and courage to hear My voice in the darkest hours, such as in prison, and to consistently stand against envy, ignorance, greed, and hatred.
  • Must be on fire with the clarity and truth of the message I will provide along with indefatigable energy to walk, sail, or ride thousands of miles over three decades.

In short,  ‘I’m looking for Saul of Tarsus who I will transform into Paul.’

 

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Six Reasons to Celebrate Jesus’ Birth

While answers to this question might appear so obvious that it doesn’t bear asking, I invite you to pause this Christmas Eve and actually write down your own answers.  They probably won’t match anyone else’s list and that’s just fine.  What this simple exercise does is bring the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth over 3 billion people celebrate this Christmas season, into our hearts a bit more.

So as we close another year, it is a joy to share with you, my much-appreciated BibleRoads friends, some of my reasons and hope you will share yours in the comments section below.

  • First, I celebrate that God loved His/Her creation enough to send the son who would not be fooled by what his senses told him was ‘real’ – leprosy, deafness, blindness, etc. His example in busting through compelling physical evidence remains an astonishing example to follow.  And where would we be without it?

 

  • Next, I celebrate Joseph, who had the humility to stay on the marriage track with Mary, since he was legally within his rights to have her stoned for a pregnancy that could only be explained through the ‘overshadowing’ of the Holy Ghost.

 

  • Mary is almost beyond comprehension as a teen whose spiritual-mindedness was so developed that she was receptive to the angel’s extraordinary message. She is a model of listening on tiptoe and then being obedient, regardless of how much the message stretches us or goes against popular custom and others’ opinions.

 

Far left end, lower register of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus (before mid-4th cent.): The Adoration of the Magi

  • The Wise Men are particularly appreciated this season since they symbolize the universal appeal of Christ, the divinity of Jesus’ nature. With today’s technology, we increasingly learn just how interconnected our little global village actually is.  I appreciate these insights from a sermon given around 440 CE:

How did it come to be that these men, who left their home country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in his appearance to enforce such  systematic adoration, offered these particular gifts?  It  was the  star that attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts, so that before they  started on their toilsome journey, they first understood that the One who was promised was owed gold as royalty,  incense as divinity, and myrrh as mortal…and so it was of great advantage to us future people that this infant should be witnessed by these wise men.1

  • The Shepherds are a lesson in preparation. The qualities their profession demanded – to see that those in their care found enough food and water, that they were well-guarded from wolves or thieves who would carry them off, that the animals wouldn’t be overdriven, that the young ones sometimes needed to be carried, not pushed, counting each animal at night as they passed under their hand – were the very attributes they would eventually recognize in the leadership of Jesus over Israel, willing to die for those in his ‘flock’.

 

  • And finally, the foiling of Herod the Great’s scheme to kill off the Christ child before his life’s purpose could be fulfilled. I sometimes forget that the Wise Men journeyed first to Jerusalem and there had that encounter with Herod who thought to use them for his own malevolent purposes. As someone threatened by anything or anyone that would encroach on his power, upend his authority, overturn his sense of reality, Herod is a reverse model for all that we want to rule out of our lives and actions:  jealousy, scheming, deception, and the draining ambition of personal power.  The Magi’s ‘wisdom’ was never more in evidence than when they wisely did not inform Herod of the child’s location and instead returned to their homes, content to have seen him.

This list is far from complete.  Please share what makes you pause this Christmas season in gratitude for all that the Master Christian’s birth means to you.

[1]Sermon by Pope Leo, quoted in “The Magi in Literature”, Robin Jensen, Bible Review, Dec. 2001, Vol. 17, #06.

 

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What Mark’s Gospel Can Teach Us – Announcing new in-depth Study Opportunity!

Saint Mark the Evangelist, Guido Reni (1575-1642)

While national characteristics can be exaggerated (i.e. ‘all Italians talk with their hands’), the description of Americans as a people of action is born out in hundreds of examples.  And that’s one reason why the Gospel of Mark might have special appeal to anyone with a proclivity toward action.

Mark is the Gospel that most depicts Jesus on the move–‘immediately’ on the other side of the lake, ‘immediately’ discerning his critics’ innermost thoughts, ‘immediately’ healing a fever.  It also depicts a relentless progression of narrative and events that climax in the Master Christian’s crucifixion and resurrection.

With its lack of an infancy story, and compression of Jesus’ ministry into a single year, Marks gospel  is the shortest of the Canon’s four (including Matthew, Luke and John).   Yet scholars think it is chock full of eyewitness accounts, conveyed from Peter to his traveling companion, John Mark, who most consider its author.  Mark’s focus on Jesus’ identity, explored through numerous characters, makes us ask if we understand his identity as well–who he is in relation to the cross, to the Messiahship, to his ultimate role as the mediator between God and humankind (I Tim. 2:5).   The Gospel has much to say about discipleship and one’s faith, causing the reader to ask tough and candid questions about one’s own followership.

These are a few of the many reasons we have chosen it for our annual in-depth study at Cedars’ Camps, October 11-15th, 2018.  Enrollment has recently opened and we hope you’ll consider giving yourself the luxury of four days to go deeply into one of the New Testament’s most descriptive books about Christ Jesus.   Please don’t wait too long as this program sells out.

Join us to explore more deeply Jesus’ ministry and how each chapter of Mark’s Gospel builds on the last.  A workbook with questions per chapter will be available to participants and afterwards through BibleRoads.   All of this study is approached not simply as an academic exploration, but a way to mine new depths of the Gospel’s message to your daily life today.  We hope you can join us in this beautiful Fall location in the Ozark’s.

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Revelation’s Other View of Christ: Incompatible or Inclusive?

From pastoral shepherd caring for his flock to mighty warrior bent on destruction — here are two New Testament views of Christ so opposite that, on first glance, they seem incompatible.  The Gospels and the book of Revelation give both.  Why?

Jesus as both Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God.

One of the favorite tourist treasures from a trip to Jerusalem is visiting a shop where wood carvers create all size figurines of Jesus with a lamb over his shoulder.  Carved from local cedar, it epitomizes the Jesus we come to know as children first exposed to the Gospel story.  Here is the ‘good shepherd’, one of the ‘seven ‘I AM’ statements of powerful self-identification in John’s Gospel.  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  And here also is the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, evident throughout the Scriptures.

The good Shepherd portrays the pastoring care-giver that loves little children; heals the leper, the deaf and the blind; patiently nurtures his disciples’ faith and understanding; calmly masters storms; teaches unadorned parables that convey profound lessons; defuses angry crowds by raising their self-awareness, staving off a stoning of an adulterous woman—all through his spiritual equanimity and poise.  Each of the four Gospels provide varying stories of these events, reinforcing an image of Christ Jesus that comforts and nurtures our own spiritual growth today.

And then there is Revelation.  This last book of the New Testament has confounded readers for centuries, providing the greatest variety of interpretations, frightening some and for others, providing justification for coming Armageddon’s.  But what is consistent throughout is a view of Christ as warrior that can provide significant insight.

To get to this view, Revelation first shows it is the critical second part of the Bible’s Alpha and Omega of books.  Just as Genesis is the ‘alpha’ and  introduces a spiritual view of man in Chapter 1 (“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), so Revelation is the ‘omega’ story of the need to defend that understanding.  What a perfect way to end the New Testament record, based on Christ Jesus’ numerous proofs of man in God’s image.

Crypt of the Romanesque 10th century chapel, Gargilesse, France.

So where does the warrior image of Christ come in?  After the Lamb is initially introduced, in John’s first vision when taken to heaven.  Here we learn that this Lamb figure is the crucified and resurrected Christ, alone worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll that will reveal the machinations of evil.   “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”  (Rev. 5:5).     

Here is our first hint of the conquering Christ who prevails throughout the rest of the book, destroying all the ways that evil tries to deceive, terrorize and undermine humanity.

One of the joys of researching and sharing Biblical books like Revelation is seeing the varied styles of art through centuries that capture the ideas Revelation conveys.  One example is this depiction from the 10th century Crypt of the Romanesque chapel, Gargilesse, in one of France’s most beautiful villages in the Loire Valley.  Christians cared enough about this image of Christ, destroying evil’s obnoxious efforts to undermine, to create this fresco and worship here through the centuries.

(In addition to the crypt, artists depicted other treasures of Revelation, such as Capitals of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse—so meaningful was this final Biblical book to their own spiritual journey.)

Christ as warrior with the sword in his mouth is an image throughout Revelation, from the first chapter to almost the last.  “In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (Rev. 1:16).

And “…The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth…” (Rev. 19:21), with the ‘rider’ again being the Christ figure.

What a lesson to Christians today, to express both the pastoring and warrior qualities of Christ.   Here is the demand to both love and patiently nurture ourselves and others, as well as be ever-vigilant to fight and destroy evil’s aggressive efforts to make one forget who he or she really is, as Genesis and Revelation remind us in their Alpha and Omega roles.

 

 

 

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Breaking barriers in Joppa: Lessons in Inclusion

One of the wondrous things of landing at Tel Aviv’s shiny, modern airport is being transported to an ancient Biblical site within thirty minutes of clearing customs.

Joppa at sunset over Mediterranean with St. Peter’s Church on right.

On a recent trip we did just that – left Ben Gurion airport for ancient Joppa, the southern part of a 1st century C.E. (Common Era) port city, now Tel Aviv.  Walking up to the city’s Acropolis provided a spectacular sunset view that verified why the site was named Jaffa or Joppa (today called Yaffo), meaning lovely or pretty.  Looking out to the Mediterranean, we had our first look at the Franciscan “St. Peter’s Church”, built over a medieval citadel from the 13th century, dedicated to when the disciple visited Simon the Tanner.

Acts 10 tells us the story, first opening with the appearing of an angel to Cornelius, the Italian centurion who will become a sign of the ever-widening ministry of the early Church beyond the Jews.  As “a devout man” (Acts 10:2) who both generously gave to the people and prayed constantly to God, he was an example of the spiritual hunger among Gentiles drawn to the monotheism of Judaism.  Such seekers were called “God-fearers”.   Little did Cornelius know his faith would play a key role in the unfolding development of Christianity, teaching the disciple upon whom Jesus said his church would be built, a life-changing lesson in Christian inclusion.

No one — not Jew nor Gentile — is excluded from God’s all-encompassing love.  All are welcome to experience this great love, explained by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven already come.  As he directed his disciples when he sent them out:  “Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously” (Matt. 10:6,7).

Back to Acts, the angel directs Cornelius to send men to Joppa to retrieve Peter, who is ‘lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside’ (Acts 10:6).   Acts is full of the Holy Spirit bringing disparate parties together, and this story in Acts 10 is the second account of holy pairing to further God’s purpose.  (The first appears in Acts 8, about Philip meeting and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch.)

The author of Acts, (thought to be the Luke, the writer of the Gospel), is a compelling storyteller and the scene shifts to Simon’s home.  We’re told Peter has gone up on the roof to pray.  Why?  While the text doesn’t say, archaeologists discovered that ancient tanners used urine in their work for the curing of leather.  One would have known exactly where Simon lived by the smell!  Under such circumstances, going on the roof to pray while getting some fresh seaside air makes sense.

It is this prayer in which Peter is told three times to let go of the kosher dietary laws he has practiced throughout his life (Acts 11).   They won’t have a place as the Gentile world learns the message of grace and love embodied in Christ Jesus’ teachings and will increasingly embrace.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 9:34).

The Hebrew Scriptures names this port city as well:  when Jonah decides to flee from God’s directive to save the people of Nineveh. It is Joppa where he catches the boat to Tarshish, in today’s Spain, and one of the remotest parts of the Roman Empire.  That this only Old Testament parable cited Tarshish for Jonah’s new destination would have been an obvious object lesson to early listeners – knowing that it was the most opposite direction of Nineveh one could find!

The book of Acts also tells us the faithful disciple, Tabitha,  lived in Joppa.  Always taking care to balance experiences of both male and female disciples, Luke tells Tabitha’s encounter with Peter just prior to his stay at the house of Simon.  Dorcas (Tabitha’s name in Greek) had died, Acts 9 explains.  Having heard that Peter was in the nearby town of Lydda, two men were sent to bring him to Tabitha’s bed side.

Pause and consider what this group of new converts to Christ Jesus’ teachings believed:  that just as Jesus’ had raised Lazarus from the dead and himself had been resurrected, they must have reasoned that death could not have been this woman’s final chapter.  They were learning to challenge the most common and aggressive view of humanity’s end – death – and say, no.   Life is here, right where this body appears.  When Peter came to Tabitha, he proved them right, raising her from the dead and ‘calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive”  (Acts 9:41).

It’s no wonder that he stayed in Joppa ‘for some time’ at Simon’s home, probably preaching and continuing to share and heal with the powerful message of Christ Jesus’ teachings that the Kingdom of heaven has indeed arrived and is among us.

Modern day pilgrims on Joppa’s ancient Acropolis.

Sometimes searching a Biblical location and seeing all that happened there is a marvelous way to ground ourselves in the stories.  Joppa gives us three powerful examples of the spiritual lessons the Scriptures reveal (Cornelius, Tabitha and Jonah).  No doubt we will never see it again as only an ancient site–as this group of Pilgrims can attest.

 

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