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Who Am I to Stand in God’s Way?

May 13, 2019

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?(Acts 11:15-17)

On Sunday our youngest son is graduating from law school. But after we celebrate this milestone in his life, he will immediately face another challenge: preparing to take one of the most difficult bar exams in the country.  This month and next month, young people all over the globe will be graduating from schools and beginning their careers, continuing their education at another level, or preparing for exams to enter their chosen profession.  In the coming months couples will be getting married.  People will be retiring.  Children will be added to families by birth, adoption, or through a foster program.  Friends or loved ones may leave, become ill, or die.  Change can be difficult.  Something often happens to cause us to stumble after we have been bumping along in the same routine for a while. We don’t always welcome the change–some changes are devastating.

The Scripture texts for next Sunday assure us that God is with us to help and to comfort us during all of life’s challenges.[1]  The Holy Spirit helps us as we transition to new phases of our life and as we encounter new challenges.  We need to listen to the Word and pay attention to the Holy Spirit—because who are we to stand in God’s way?  Who are we to charge off into a direction that God has not guided us to?  Pay attention to the new ways that God is working in your life, and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you.  God will use the most difficult circumstances in your life to fit them into his plans for you.

John recorded that Jesus spent his last hours with his disciples teaching a seminar on the Holy Spirit. He told them that though he was leaving them, help was on the way: “But I am telling you the truth: it is better for you that I go away, because if I do not go, the Helper will not come to you. But if I do go away, then I will send him to you. . . When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth” (John 16: 5-7, 13, Good News Bible).  It was a difficult lesson for the disciples to hear.

They expected Jesus to throw off their Roman oppressors and become the king of Israel. They didn’t understand why he had to leave them just when he had revealed himself as the Messiah who would usher in a great renaissance for the Jewish people. Why couldn’t he just accept the kingship that would be offered to him, so that they could all work in his administration?  Instead, Jesus continued to educate them on how they were to carry on without him.  Jesus ended the lecture by giving them a new command: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

After the resurrection and even after the disciples and others received the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter encountered a major challenge when he felt called to minister to Gentiles.  There was confusion in the early church over whom God intended to save by Jesus’ resurrection. In the first lesson Peter reports that he has been hanging out with Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18).  Most Jewish believers thought that God only offered salvation to Jews because God had given the law to them.  Others thought that Gentiles could be saved if they followed the Mosaic law, including circumcision.  Both were proven wrong by the Holy Spirit.  Peter discovered the meaning of what Isaiah had written: “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19).

In Acts, chapter 10, Luke told us that Cornelius, a Roman centurion, sent emissaries to Joppa to summon Peter to come to his home in Caesarea. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house he found a crowd of people—Cornelius’ relatives and friends. “Peter said to them:You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or to visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. May I ask why you sent for me?’” (Acts 10:28-29).

Peter understood that God had arranged the meeting when Cornelius explained that a “man in shining clothes” stood before him as he was praying and told him to send for Peter (Acts 10:30).  Peter gave the group the Cliff Notes version of what had transpired with Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers [Jews]who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:44-46).

The psalmist confirms that everyone has cause to praise God—even the Gentiles, as strange as that was to the Jewish religious establishment in the first century.  We all play an instrument or sing a song in God’s orchestra and choir: “Praise the Lord from the heavens . . . Praise the Lord from the earth . . . sea creatures . . . mountains and hills  . . . wild animals and all cattle . . . kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children” (Excerpts, Psalm 148: 1, 7-12).  Each of God’s creatures reflects his handiwork.  Each creature is an exquisite piece of craftsmanship that glorifies God.

Peter went back up to Jerusalem to explain himself and to clear the air on the question of whether Gentiles should be accepted into the fold without following all of the Jewish traditions and customs, including circumcision.   He told the church in Jerusalem what had happened in Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, including how the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles. His closing argument was, “It is clear that God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; who was I, then, to try to stop God!” (Acts 11:17, Good News Translation).  The account of the Holy Spirit’s presence among the Gentiles was the final piece of evidence that led the Jerusalem church to conclude that God had extended his saving grace to everyone through Christ’s resurrection (Acts 11:18).

The grand finale of our lives will be in the new heaven and the new earth described by John:  “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea . . . for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Excerpts, Revelation 21: 1-5).  John testified to God’s voice confirming that he is doing a new thing—during my life and in your life, and after our time on earth is over.

Peter understood that God was doing a new thing.  It threatened the establishment, the status quo, but Peter wasn’t about to start arguing with God.  God isn’t happy with the status quo.  He will put people and circumstances in your life that will challenge you.  Change can be difficult—whether you are starting a new job or leaving an old one, dealing with a new challenge at work or at home, entering into or ending a marriage, adding or subtracting a child to or from your household, caring for an ill friend or relative, or learning to live without a loved one.  When you enter into a new phase of your life or when you face new challenges, make sure that you consult with the Holy Spirit as you move forward.  And rest assured that God will fit this new challenge into his plan for your life.  He will be with you every step of the way as you move forward in faith.

Prayer: “Grant me, O Lord, heavenly wisdom, that I may learn to seek you above all things, and to understand all other things as they are according to the order of your wisdom. Amen.”  Thomas a Kempis

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-7; John 16:12-22 or John 13:31-35

Marathon

May 6, 2019

My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20: 24)

I admire marathoners. I started running the day that I quit smoking on August 21, 1981.  My husband was my trainer who patiently shepherded me through the first weeks of training.  At first I couldn’t run more than a half a block without stopping to catch my breath, but Bob would circle back to me to encourage me.  Six weeks later I ran a local 10k with Bob that ended in the Los Angeles Coliseum.  Bob’s mother and stepfather were there, holding up a sign that read “The Running Reagans” as we made our triumphant entry into the Coliseum.  Bob could have finished the race in half the time that it took me, but he stayed with me and ran at my much slower pace.

I know several people who have run marathons—the grueling 26.2 mile race that tests the endurance and strength of runners. Our son, Bobby, ran the 18 mile run from downtown to the beach a few days after he turned 18, and ran the Los Angeles Marathon twice while he was in college and law school.  One of my friends started training for this year’s Los Angeles March marathon months in advance.  Her training schedule included exhausting 2 ½ hour runs once a week in addition to other daily training.  A few days after she successfully completed the marathon, she sent me two photos taken of her during the marathon—one with her arms raised victoriously as she crossed the finish line and the other of her face fixed in a grimace—which she imagined was how she looked during 80% of the race.

As I read the Scripture texts for Sunday,[1]which is Mother’s Day, I thought about my friend, and how similar being a mother is to running a marathon. Luke writes that Paul told the elders from Ephesus: “My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20: 24).  Raising children often feels like a race; mothers run from task to task to finish everything that needs to be done.  And we want to complete the task the Lord has given us to teach our children about God’s love and abundant grace.  The Mother Marathon requires mothers to maintain their stamina over many years to complete the race.  It is grinding but important work, and after years of investing our faith, time, energies, money, intellect, and other resources in the job, we cross the finish line 25 or so years later.

But even when our major mothering duties end, a mother still keeps watch over her flock, like the elders of a church watch over their congregation, or a shepherd watches over his sheep.  Paul goes on to tell the elders to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20: 28).  He is encouraging them to shepherd their congregations–to lead them to the truth.  But his words are applicable to mothers and fathers as well.  God has given us the privilege and the responsibility to nurture and care for the children he has blessed us with. We are to shepherd them along the way as they develop and grow, as God shepherds us in life and in death.

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rdPsalm, Philip Keller explains that the rod and the staff are two separate tools, which is borne out by the text: “Your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).  The rod is made from a hard wood, with a club carved at one end.  Shepherd boys spend hours “practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy.  It becomes his main weapon of defence for both himself and his sheep.” [2]  The rod is like God’s Word—we can count on it to defend us against Satan’s attacks.  As shepherds of our own flocks, mothers and fathers protect and defend their flocks by relying on God’s Word, and by teaching it to our children.  For many years Bob spent devotional time with the children every night before bedtime.  His signature devotional verse was “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119: 11).

Keller likens the shepherd’s staff to the Holy Spirit, the comforter.  The staff is a long stick with a hook on one end; it has three uses: to lift a newborn lamb to return it to its mother if they are separated; to catch individual sheep to examine them; and to gently guide the sheep.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us to guide, comfort, and help us.  Like Bob helped me as a beginning runner, the Holy Spirit stays by our side. When we fall behind, he circles back to us to guide us and to offer encouragement.

As the shepherd’s rod and staff guide, protect, and comfort the sheep, God’s Word and the Holy Spirit guide, protect, and comfort us throughout our lives, even as we walk through life’s darkest valleys, and the final valley of death:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23: 1-4).  This is the most important lesson to remember as we navigate through life, and the most important lesson that mothers and fathers can teach their children—that God is with them as their guide, protector, and comforter throughout their lives.

John recounts an event when Jesus was teaching in the temple, in the winter during the Feast of Dedication, which is the present day Feast of Lights, or Hanukkah.  The people said, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. . . you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. . . I and the Father are one” (John 10: 24-30). This is the most definitive statement that Jesus ever made of his divinity.  He was not merely a good teacher.  He is God.

He is the God who shepherds us through life’s trials. He is the Spirit who comes alongside us when we feel we aren’t doing a good job to encourage us during the marathon of life.  He is the one who protects us and loves us and helps us.  He is the one who is there to help all mothers and fathers finish the race to raise people of God. There are times when mothers and fathers become discouraged.  But don’t forget who is on your side: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

It is your job as a parent, grandparent, or aunt or uncle to plant the seed and water it.  It is the job of the Holy Spirit to bring forth the fruit of your labor.  When you despair that you failed or aren’t doing a good enough job, listen with the ear of your heart[3], and you will hear the shepherd calling you to the security and comfort of the fold.  Come to him who protects and comforts you–the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: “Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children [grandchildren/nieces/nephews]. Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.” –Book of Common Prayer

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are Acts 20:17-35; Psalm 23; Rev 7:9-17; John 10:22-30.

[2]Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rdPsalm(1970), Zondervan, p. 83.

[3]From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

From Terminator to Promoter

April 29, 2019

As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’” (Acts 9: 3-5)

The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’ death is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible.  Saul (aka Paul) was a highly intelligent and educated Jewish man who had done his “post doctorate studies” with the famed Jewish scholar, Gamiliel in Jerusalem.  He enthusiastically took part in the persecution, arrest, and imprisonment of followers of Christ, and encouraged them to renounce their faith.  Luke records in the eighth chapter of Acts that “Saul approved the stoning of Stephen” (Acts 8:1).  In 50 A. D., Dr. Luke became Paul’s personal physician, confidante, and close companion. He traveled with Paul for the last 18 years of his life.  Luke related instances of Saul’s persecution of Christians in the book of Acts, which stories were presumably told to him by Paul and were confirmed by others.

In the ninth chapter of Acts Luke confirms that Saul was hell-bent on terminating the cancer of Christianity that threatened the Jewish religion: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9: 1).[1]  Saul followed Jesus’s disciples 175 miles northeast of Jerusalem to Damascus to track down those who belonged to “the Way” (believers in Christ) to bring them back to Jerusalem to face trial and punishment.

But the Risen Christ had other plans for Saul.  He got up close and personal to Saul: “As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9: 3-5).  Saul was blinded by the light.

Instead of storming into Damascus as the terminator, and tracking down the “criminals” of the Way, a blind Saul was led slowly into Damascus by his companions, and was at the mercy of the very Jesus who he had persecuted.

Luke tells us that Saul was staying in a house on Straight Street.  The Lord instructed his disciple, Ananias, to go to Straight Street to meet Saul, and to lay his hands on him to restore his sight.  Saul’s reputation as a chief prosecutor of Christians preceded him, but Ananias reluctantly followed Jesus’ instructions.  He went to Saul, laid hands on him, filling Saul with the Holy Spirit and healing his eyes.  Luke reports that Saul was baptized and began to preach that Jesus was the Son of God.  In the space of a few days Saul had progressed from his role as the terminator of Christ’s followers to a major promoter of Jesus Christ as the Son of God!

Paul later wrote that he immediately went to Arabian desert after his conversion.  Dr. Bill Creasy is among the Biblical scholars who believe that Paul was given a personal tutorial by the Risen Christ during the two or three years that he was in Arabian desert (See Galatians 1: 11-20).   The other apostles had received their instruction from Jesus during the three years of his earthly ministry.

Saul’s conversion experience gives us hope for ourselves and for our friends and relatives who have rejected the Risen Christ, as Saul did. God has conscripted many people from the “enemy camp.”  And we don’t need to be struck by lightening, or go to the road to Damascus to be drafted into God’s army.  We can admit our mistakes, surrender ourselves to God, and receive the Holy Spirit to guide us in our faith journey.

During the Easter season, we are particularly aware of our debt to Jesus Christ, for humbling himself to become a human, and for enduring great suffering for our sakes. Jesus revealed himself to John while he was in exile in Patmos.  John saw all kinds of creatures praising God: “Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:12).

Always the teacher, Jesus sets a good example for us in the gospel lesson by showing us that caring for others’ physical needs is an important part of ministry. The Risen Christ appeared to his disciples at the Sea of Galilee and helped them catch fish.  He then invited them to have breakfast with him on the beach: “Come and have breakfast . . . Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead”  (John 21:12-14).

Hospitality was a key ingredient of Jesus’ ministry.  The first miracle he performed was assisting a wedding host who ran out of wine, by turning water into wine.  He often paired good food or drink with spiritual food. But he extended his hospitality first to his friends and others before making a spiritual point; a meal preceded a teaching at the Last Supper, and he fed thousands before speaking to them.

God meets us where we are.  Don’t be concerned if your experience isn’t the same as another person’s.  It is only our puny human minds that lead us to think that the triune God approaches everyone in the same way or that God only responds to certain words or postures.  God is not limited to the boundaries of the human mind. He may appear to another person very differently than he appears to you or to me. We may have similar experiences with God, or not.  But we can always depend on him.  If you depend on him for your security, you will not be shaken.

Prayer: Father, open our hearts to receive your Spirit, so that we can walk with you and show others the way to you.  We know that you use non-believers to carry your Word into the far reaches of the earth.  Continue to touch those who reject and persecute you and meet them on their own roads to Damascus.  Help us to follow Jesus’ example of hospitality to all that we meet.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Easter are Acts 9:1-22, Psalm 30;  Revelation  5: 1-14; John 21:1-19

Fearless

April 22, 2019

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Zig Ziglar, the late motivational speaker said, “F-E-A-R has two meanings: ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Rise.’ The choice is yours.”  A committed Christian, Ziglar knew that the power to overcome fear comes from the resurrected Christ:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Ziglar shows us how ordinary people like you and me can face down our fears and go on to be productive and creative members of society when we rely on Christ Jesus.

Last week’s blog summarized some of the compelling arguments for the truth of the resurrection (https://dianereagan.com/2019/04/15/week-end-tomb-2/).  The fact that Jesus rose from the dead is proof that he is God. And that means that every word he spoke and every lesson he taught is a treasure beyond measure. He promised that those who believe in him and seek forgiveness will be with him for eternity.  This assurance, along with the Spirit of Jesus, gives us the strength that we need to face anything.  Bill and Gloria Gaither captured it in the refrain of their song, Because He Lives: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, every fear is gone.”

The horn is an ancient symbol of victory.  The psalmist’s words foreshadow Christ’s victory over death: “And he has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his faithful servant of Israel, the people close to his heart” (Psalm 148: 14). Because Christ was victorious over death, we also are assured of life with him when the curtain closes on our life on earth. No matter what happens to us in this life, we are assured of an eternal home with him.

The Scripture verses this week demonstrate the power that the Holy Spirit gives us to overcome the fears we face.[1] After Jesus died on the cross, the disciples gathered in the upper room behind a locked door. They were quaking in their sandals, afraid that the religious leaders would find them and that they would meet the same fate as Jesus. They were frightened, confused, and unsure of the future.  But everything changed in a flash, when the resurrected Christ appeared to them on Easter night in that locked room, and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrected Christ Jesus gave his disciples a special foretaste of Pentecost to empower them to preach in the temple and to perform miracles. Luke tells us that the apostles went back to Solomon’s Colonnade, on the temple grounds to preach where Jesus taught.  They were fearless.  By preaching and performing miracles in the same place where Jesus had preached and performed miracles, they showed that the power of the crucified and risen Christ was with them. The power of the disciples to heal was so amazing that “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits and all of them were healed” (Acts 5:12-16).

Imagine that–Peter’s shadow carried enough power to heal the sick!  And in case you have doubts as Thomas did, John records that “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of this disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”(John 20:30-31).

Luke reminds us that receiving power from God did not insulate the disciples from hatred and prosecution. The temple priests were “filled with jealousy” of the apostles’ power, and from the attention they were receiving: “They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out” (Acts: 5:17-19).  The apostles defied the religious leaders and went back to the temple courts to preach the gospel. Again, they were ordered to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest, who asked them why they continued to preach against their “strict orders not to teach in this name [Jesus’ name]. . . Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’” (Acts 5: 28,29).

The authorities also tried to put an end to John’s ministry.  Because of his bold teaching and his refusal to stop teaching, he was exiled to the island of Patmos about 35 miles off the coast of Turkey.  But the plan to end his ministry backfired. John spent his time on Patmos in prayer and meditation, and it was during his time there that he received a powerful and explosive message from God in the form of a vision.  We know that vision as the book of Revelation.  John was sent to Patmos as a punishment, but it turned into one of the great blessings of first century Christianity. It was another example of the God working to fulfill his plan under adverse circumstances.

The power of the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to continue to preach for many years after Jesus’ death.  They were transformed by the Holy Spirit and never deviated from the message.  All of the apostles, except John, were martyred for their beliefs.  The fact that they were so convinced of the truth of the gospel message that they boldly preached it for many years without regard to the consequences is a powerful proof of the truth of the message.

The disciples were not the only ones who received the Holy Spirit.  Fifty days after Easter, on Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in all believers.  When we are fearful, we freeze—we are paralyzed and helpless.   But the Holy Spirit empowers us to break away from those fears so that we can move forward fearlessly in confidence. When you invoke the name of Jesus, his Spirit leads you to a sure path.  Remember Paul’s words: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). The Spirit is with you to see you through the fears that the Evil One throws in your path.

When you invoke Jesus’ name you are calling on the one who took your mistakes, your fears, and your anxieties with him to the cross.  Your sins and the sins of all were nailed to the cross with Christ Jesus, so that you can live with him in paradise after your time on earth. Jesus paid your debt so that you don’t have to.  Bring your mistakes, your fears, and worries to Jesus and leave them at the foot of the cross.  He will relieve you of your burdens; they were bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus.  Give him your fear of failure, of job loss, of illness, of death, of relationships– along with your worries about past, current, and future challenges and disappointments.

There is power in the name of Jesus.  Tap into the power of the Holy Spirit and become the fearless person that Jesus wants you to be and has enabled you to be.

Prayer:  Father, be with us and send your Spirit to rescue us when we are paralyzed by fear and anxiety.  Send the Evil One packing when he sows weeds of doubt, insecurity, and anxiety in our hearts.  Replace our fears with the sweet blossoms of your everlasting peace and love, which casts out all fear.  In your name we pray. Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for the Second Sunday of Easter are Acts 5:12-32; Psalm 148; Revelation 1: 4-18; John 20: 19-31.

Week-End Tomb

April 15, 2019

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen. . . (Luke 24: 5)

In his lecture on the Passion, Dr. Bill Creasy describes an imaginary conversation between Joseph of Arimathea and his wife when Joseph arrived home on Good Friday night after burying Jesus in the new tomb that he had purchased.  He tells his wife that he placed Jesus’ body in their tomb. “What?!!” she exclaimed.  “You gave that new tomb away? Do you know how much it cost?”  To which Joseph replied, “Don’t worry, he only needs it for the week-end.”

But the disciples hadn’t yet grasped that fact.  The women were surprised and perplexed when they arrived with spices for the body early Sunday morning and found the stone rolled away and the body missing. Two angels, appearing as “men . . . in dazzling apparel . . . said to them ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen . . . Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24: 2-8). They ran to tell the others, who were skeptical—“their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24: 11).[1]

It wasn’t until Jesus appeared to them later that day that they finally grasped the reality of Jesus’ resurrection: ”While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost ” (Luke 24: 36-37). Their surprise soon turned to “joy and amazement” (Luke 24: 40) when reality began to set in.

I can identify with that. I was surprised a few years ago by the unexpected appearance of our youngest son, who we had not seen in a year.  I was just drifting off to sleep when his sudden appearance shocked me.  I didn’t grasp the reality of his being there because my brain was telling me that he was still in Italy.  After a few seconds when the fact of his presence hit me, I flung my arms around him and hugged him for a long time.  It gave me an inkling of how the disciples felt when Jesus surprised them—shock then joy and amazement.  The disciples must have peppered Jesus with questions, as I did our son.

One of the psalms for Easter Sunday sets the tone for our rejoicing over the empty tomb:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).  We rejoice on Easter because of the resurrection of Jesus, by which we are assured that we will also experience new life with him when our time on earth is over.  David sings “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead . . . you make known the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16: 9-11).

Christians don’t have to speculate about whether or not we will continue to live with God after our time on earth has ended. Paul assures us that  “[I]n fact Christ has been raised from the dead . . . For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive“  (1 Corinthians 15: 20-21).  Jesus showed us how it is done—how believers will be resurrected into new life.  We celebrate the resurrection of Christ in every mass and worship service because it gives us great hope and assurance for our own future after death, as well as that of our loved ones.

Can we trust the resurrection story or is it a convenient myth?  Dr. Norman Geisler, a highly respected current day theologian and scholar, explains, “Evidence for the resurrection of Christ is compelling.  There are more documents, more eyewitnesses, and more corroborative evidence than for any other historical event of ancient history. The secondary, supplementary evidence is convincing; when combined with the direct evidence, it presents a towering case for the physical resurrection of Christ.  In legal terminology, it is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt.’”[2]

The following is a brief summary of the evidence in support of the resurrection, and answers to popular objections:

  • Jesus first appeared to women (John 20:15-18; Matthew 28: 8-10). The first appearance of Jesus to women is “an unmistakable sign of authenticity . . . in a male dominated culture . . . In the first-century Jewish culture, a writer inventing a resurrection account would never have taken this approach. A woman’s testimony was not even accepted in court.”[3]
  • The transformed disciples are evidence of the truth of the resurrection: This fact is highly persuasive; if they were spinning a yarn, they would not have hid and been afraid. Even more convincing is that they were still skeptical when the first reports of his resurrection were reported.  They didn’t actually accept it until Jesus appeared to them. And Thomas, who was not present when he initially appeared to them, continued to disbelieve the reports of Jesus appearances.  But a few weeks later, these same people were boldly proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, even to the chief priests who were responsible for Jesus’ death.
  • The reaction of the Jewish authorities also confirms the truth of the resurrection.They did not dispute the missing body or search for it, but instead, bribed the soldiers to lie (Matthew 28:11-15).
  • Jesus appeared many times after his death, in his physical body, to his disciples and to others.“Jesus appeared to more than 500 people over a forty day period of time” (Acts 1: 3); to Peter(1 Corinthians 15:5; John 20: 3-9; Mark 16: 12; Luke 24: 13-35); to ten disciples(Luke 24: 36-49; John 20: 19-23); to eleven disciples(John 20: 24-31); to seven disciples(John 21); to commission the apostles(Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16: 14-18); to five hundred(1 Corinthians 15:6); to James(1 Corinthians 15:7): Jesus’ brothers were not believers before his resurrection. John tells us that ‘even his own brothers did not believe in him’ (John 7:5).  But after his resurrection James and Jude became believers—and James was a pillar of the early church; at the Ascension(Acts 1: 4-8); to Paul (Acts 9: 1-9; 1 Corinthians 15:8).  “On all . . . occasions Jesus was seen and probably heard. Four times he offered himself to be touched.  He was definitely touched twice. Jesus revealed his crucifixion scars on two occasions.” There are four accounts of the empty tomb, and he was witnessed eating food on four other occasions—all of which confirm that Jesus rose from the dead in a physical body” (Baker Encyclopedia, p. 655).
  • The early church consisted of Jews, who proclaimed that Jesus was God.For their testimony as to Jesus as the Christ, they were beaten, persecuted, threatened with death and martyred.  This is strong evidence in support of their encounter with the resurrected Christ.
  • Jewish historian, Josephus: Even the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, who was not a believer, reported “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.” [4]
  • Other theories against the resurrection accounts (the wrong tomb theory, the swoon theory, the stolen body theory, and others) have been debunked by scholars. Paul Maier summarized that scholarship. [5]

The scholarship of the past two thousand years supports Jesus’ resurrection.  The lives of millions of Christians who have experienced life with the living Jesus is further proof that Jesus lives.  J. P. Moreland, a distinguished philosopher, stated to Lee Strobel that “the final confirming proof  [of the resurrection] is the ongoing encounter with the resurrected Christ that happens all over the world, in every culture, to people from all kinds of backgrounds and personalities—well educated and not, rich and poor, thinkers and feelers, men and women. They will testify that more than any other single thing in their lives, Jesus Christ has changed them.” [6]

Easter is a time for rejoicing because the resurrection is proof that Jesus was raised from the dead and lives today. We give thanks for the gift of salvation that he secured for us.  St. Augustine of Hippo, often quoted by Pope John Paul, counseled: “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.”  The transformation experienced by people all over the globe testifies to the truth of the gospel message and that Jesus lives today. Believe it, rejoice in it, and be transformed by the Easter message. Alleluia!

Prayer: Lord, forgive us and soften our hearts to become more receptive to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.   We praise and thank you for your sacrifices for us. We praise and thank you for securing our salvation.  We praise and thank you for your witness after your resurrection, which brought to light your truth.  We praise and thank you for bringing love and joy into our lives. Lead us to your light.  Amen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXh7JR9oKVE

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for Easter Sunday are Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 16; Psalm 118: 15-29; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12.  A version of this blog was originally published on this website in 2016.

[2]Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Books (1999), pp. 651-664.

[3]Id, p. 651.

[4]Josephus: The Essential Works,translated by Paul L. Maier, Kregal Publications (1988), pp. 269-270.

[5]Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time, Kregel Publications (1991), pp. 189-205.

[6]Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, Zondervan, (1998), p. 255.

 

Coachella

April 8, 2019

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’” (John 12:12-13)

Some of our children went to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival during their high school and college years. The festival this year will be going on next week-end on Palm Sunday.  I grew up in the Coachella Valley, a desert area in Southern California.  Palm trees abound in the Coachella Valley and play a prominent role in next Sunday’s Scripture text.[1]

On Palm Sunday we remember the Sunday before the resurrection when the Passover crowd hailed Jesus as a king when he rode into Jerusalem. They were promised a king, and correctly assumed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, because they had heard of the wondrous things he had done.  And now here he was, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as foretold by the prophet Zechariah: “See your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:15; Zechariah 9:9)!  One biblical scholar suggests that waving palm branches was meant as a symbol of swords waving in victory over their oppressors.

John records that as they waved the palm branches the people exclaimed “hosanna”: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’” (John 12:12-13).  The exclamation of “hosanna” came naturally to this crowd.  It is derived from an Aramaic exclamation of praise, shouted during major Jewish religious festivals, including Passover.  It was originally an appeal to be delivered from bondage, and came to be used as a joyful expression of the anticipated deliverance.

The people expected Jesus to deliver them from Roman rule.  They expected a warrior, a conqueror. That’s why they were waving their palm branch “swords.” Scripture is set in the historical times it was written, but is often a foreshadowing of events to come.  As noted in Sunday’s Old Testament text their hope of deliverance was grounded in the Torah.  Moses sang, “The Lord will vindicate his people and relent concerning his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36).

But instead of attacking the Romans, Jesus attacked the Jewish religious leaders, and the people turned against him in the blink of an eye.  A week later, Pilate wanted “to release Jesus . . . but they [the people] kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’” (Luke 23:20). Jesus went from being welcomed as a rock star to being maligned as a pariah in just a few days. Celebrity in the world’s eyes is short-lived.  Paul teaches us to take the long view– to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, hemade himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,  . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8).

What does “having the same mindset as Jesus” require of us? Surely we, who are but a speck of dust in God’s great creation, are not to be compared to God.  But we can do our best to emulate Jesus—to follow his example.  He lowered himself to come to earth as a human being.  Jesus said that he came to serve rather than be served. With the help of the Holy Spirit living within us we can serve others. We can minister to others. We can help heal. We can encourage. We can feed the hungry, and give water to the thirsty.   As ordinary people we can repent of the sinful pride in our hearts and reflect on and adopt the attitude and actions of Jesus.

Coachella has great music, but next Sunday, come to another festival. Come to the festival honoring Jesus. Participate in the parade. Wave the palm branches and sing hosanna.  But make no mistake–Jesus did not come to free us from worldly oppression, but to save us from ourselves—to save us from our sin so that we can spend eternity with him. That is reason to rejoice—and to follow Jesus’ example of serving, helping, ministering, healing, feeding, and encouraging others.

Prayer:  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us.  With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 118: 26-29).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]Deut 32:36-39; Psalm 118:19-29 or Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19 (Palm Sunday Procession), Luke 22:1-23:56

 

Road Trip to the Passion

April 1, 2019

Do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

Every February we take a road trip from our beach community to a remote high desert monastery in Valyermo, California, where we join others for a retreat.  The monastery is nestled against mountains that are at an elevation of about 4700 feet.  It reminds me of Jesus’ 17- mile road trip from Jericho, at 900 feet below sea level, to Jerusalem, which is at 2500 feet.  Jesus made this trip with his disciples for the last time at Passover in about 32 A.D. It was the road trip to the cross.  The terrain of the Judean Wilderness is not unlike the high desert in Valyermo—vast areas of dry land with few natural sources of water.

The Scripture texts this week prepare us for that trip.[1]  Psalm 126 is in a group of Psalms (120-134) called Psalms of Ascent—songs that were sung by the pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem.  The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was steep.  Singing these 15 psalms kept their minds off of the physical exertion and on the spiritual purpose of the journey.  They were also uplifting:  “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy . . .Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, and carrying sheaves with them” (Psalm 126: 3, 6). Pilgrimages were made to the temple in Jerusalem for the three feasts: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.[2]  Jesus’ final trip from Jericho to Jerusalem was during the time of Passover; he and his disciples would have sung this psalm on the ascent to Jerusalem.   Jesus must have been enveloped with a sense of his destiny as he sang the song promising a harvest of joy: “He who goes out weeping carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6).

The words of Biblical prophets are always set in the context of the times, but often also foreshadow greater events in the future. The last chapters of Isaiah, including Chapter 43, are filled with references to the Messiah.  In our text this week, Isaiah recounts the exodus (v. 16-17) and promises that the miracles of the past are nothing compared to what is to come: “Do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). Isaiah is looking to the Messiah, who would rescue mankind once and for all.

In this week’s gospel text, Jesus predicts his death at the hands of the religious leaders.  In the parable of the wicked tenants who beat the servants and killed the vineyard owner’s son, Jesus thinly disguises the players of the Passion, and the priests knew it:  “[T]hey perceived that he had told this parable against them” (Luke 20:19).   God is the owner of the vineyard, Israel is the vineyard, the tenants are the religious leaders and the son is Jesus, the Messiah.  The religious leaders now knew that Jesus was aware of the plot to kill him, “So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (Luke 20: 20).

Paul discusses Jesus’ suffering for our sake and “.  . . the power of his resurrection. . .” (Philippians 3:10).   He encourages us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14).

The Benedictine monks at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo created a path up the side of the mountain behind the monastery, where metal and wood sculptures are set at intervals, depicting the stations of the cross, reminding us of Christ’s suffering and death.

As you ascend toward the spiritual peak of the Passion and Resurrection, be confident that the seeds of faith that you carry will result in a harvest of great joy.

Prayer: Father, be with us as we journey to the Passion during the next few weeks.  Comfort us as only you can as we recall your suffering on the cross.  Put your arms around us in our sorrows and in our suffering.  Help us perceive the new things that you are doing in our lives.  Fill us with your Spirit and songs of joy as we celebrate your Resurrection and the joy that we will experience when we are reunited forever with you and with our loved ones who have gone before us. Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scriptures for the Fifth Sunday in Lent are Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20: 9-20.

[2]“[W]orshipers originally sung these psalms as they ascended up the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16) or as the priests ascended the fifteen steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.” (Keith Ruckhaus, As Though We Were Dreaming: A Commentary on the Songs of Ascent for Lent, 2013, Wipf & Stock, p. x).