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Empowered by the Holy Spirit

May 25, 2020

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2: 1-4)

The story told by Luke in the second chapter of Acts takes place when the fledgling church was celebrating Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, 50 days after Passover.  Jews have celebrated Pentecost for centuries; it is a celebration of the wheat harvest, and also remembers Moses receiving the law from God on Mount Sinai.

The windstorm that engulfed the young church that day was unusual because it was “a violent wind from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2: 2).  People from many different countries were filled with the Holy Spirit. Each spoke in his own language, but was still able to understand the others speaking in their native tongues: “Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?  Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’  Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2: 7-12).

The events that occurred on Pentecost, 32 A. D., as told by Luke, are viewed as the birth of the church under grace—the day that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ followers.  Peter gave his speech to an international audience, and 3,000 souls were saved. (Acts 2:41).[1]  That first Pentecost of the Christian church occurred 50 days after the Resurrection, 10 days after the Ascension of Jesus.[2]  It is no coincidence that the birth of the church under grace occurred on Pentecost, when Jews were celebrating the birth of the church under the law.  While we believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the heart of each believer, on Pentecost, God emphasized the importance of the church—the body of believers who are Jesus’ representatives in the world.  It is also no coincidence that believers from all nations were gathered that day, symbolizing the unity of believers around the globe.

The first Pentecost of the Christian church is reminiscent of the work of the Holy Spirit when Moses was having problems managing thousands of complaining Israelites in the desert.   God told Moses to bring “seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people.  Have them come to the Tent of Meeting . . . I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.” (Numbers 11: 16-17).  And that’s what God did.  Afterwards, Moses said that he wished the Lord would put his Spirit on all of the people (Numbers 11: 29).

God knew that the burden of teaching and taking care for the people was too great a burden for Moses, and for Jesus’ disciples.  He sent the Holy Spirit to help Moses, and centuries later, to help Jesus’ disciples in their task to spread the gospel.  All who were gathered in the house church on that Pentecost were filled with the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak to each other in their native tongues and still be understood. That is a powerful lesson, showing us that despite our differences, people of faith from all over the world can come together, unified in their common beliefs.

The Holy Spirit is shown in Scripture to be a powerful force for good in our world.  Symbols of the Holy Spirit are wind and fire—a picture of the church on fire, fueled by the wind of the Holy Spirit.  Red is the color of Pentecost, symbolizing the church on fire.  In his last lecture to his disciples, Jesus spoke to them about the Holy Spirit.  He told his grief-stricken disciples: “Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you . . . When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16: 7, 13).

And that’s what happened.  God sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, 10 days after the Ascension, 40 days after the Resurrection.  The gospel reminds us that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to believers: “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive”  (John 7: 38-39).

Empowering employees to become productive, contributing, and happy members of a work team is a current management concept.  It is strikingly similar to a concept I learned as a young manager in the 1970’s called Participatory Management.  Both concepts ask managers to share their leadership vision with employees to encourage, trust, and empower them to reach the goals of the organization.  Managers and employees work together, side by side, to achieve the goal.  This is what God has done through the ages in sending his Holy Spirit to his people to work side by side with them to help them.  The word “Counselor” (John 16:7) or Paraclete, is translated from the Greek word “parakletos.”  “Para” means “alongside,” and “kletos” means “to call.”  Parakletos means to call to the side of another.  The Holy Spirit was called to be with us by our sides.   By sending the Holy Spirit to the church on that Pentecost, God sent the message that he is accessible to all, not just to a select few.  In management parlance, the CEO is working side-by-side with the office worker or with the worker on the assembly line—guiding, trusting, encouraging, and helping the worker to complete the project.

You are empowered by the Holy Spirit who lives within you.  When you call on him, when you unleash the power–that wind-driven fire–you will affect the lives of others positively.  To paraphrase St. John, a river of living water will flow from within you to others.  God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can all carry the message of the Good News to others.

We carry that message in many different ways—sometimes with words.

Prayer:  Holy Spirit, we thank and praise you for who you are—the Spirit of God who lives in us to empower us to follow your path and to show your love to others.  We thank and praise you for coming alongside us each day as we ask for your help in all tasks—big and small.  We ask for your help in expressing your love for others mostly by our actions and sometimes by our words.  When we do use words, clamp our mouths shut when we are tempted to open old wounds or to let slip sharp, critical, or angry words.  Open our mouths when we are inclined to speak words of praise, encouragement, assistance, and love.  Help us speak the healing words of love and encouragement to others that you whisper to our hurting souls.   Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for Pentecost are Numbers 11: 24-30; Psalm 25:1-15; Acts 2: 1-21; John 7: 37-39.  A version of this blog was published on this website in June 2017.

[2] In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost, which means 50 in Greek, occurred 50 days after Passover, and was known as the Feast of Weeks, one of the three annual pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem.  The birth of the church under the law occurred on the first Pentecost in 1446 B. C., when Moses was given the law on Mt. Sinai.

 

Gathering [Virtually] for Prayer is Still Important

May 18, 2020

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day walk from the city.  When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. . . They all joined together constantly in prayer .  .  .” (Acts 1: 12-14).

Three years ago, when I wrote about Sunday’s texts, I emphasized the importance of gathering, using the disciples’ example of gathering in the upper room to pray together.  I noted that we had received a gift of a sofa pillow with the word “Gather” beautifully embroidered in gold on a beige background. It is still on our sofa, but it never occurred to us that this word would become so important worldwide in a few years and that people across the globe would be prohibited from gathering.

But that is where we are today, and for good reason.  When I first mentioned the pandemic on this website, over 3,000 people in the United States had died from the virus.  The number today is up to 89,589.  By comparison, the Center for Disease Control reported that the winter of 2018 was an especially bad flu season, when the flu virus killed an estimated 80,000 Americans (up from 12,000 to 56,000 in prior years).

Three years ago, I cited many reasons to gather: There is strength in numbers. When we gather together as a family, whether at home or at church, we share each other’s joys and sorrows.  We share stories about our day or week.  We laugh together.  We make music together or listen to music.  We brainstorm with each other.  We help each other.  We put our arms around each other in joy or sympathy.  We pray together before meals and during devotions.  We can still reap all of these benefits of community by staying “in touch” with each other through phone calls, videoconferencing Bible studies and small groups, and worshipping together virtually in our own homes.

This week’s Scripture texts[1] show us how Jesus and his disciples set an example for us of the importance of gathering together for prayer.  The texts remind us to turn to God in times of joy to thank him for our blessings, and also in times of uncertainty, suffering, weakness, and challenge, as we would turn to a trusted friend, with whom we have a long-standing relationship.

Jesus gathered his disciples together to break bread with them on that last Thursday before his arrest.  The group then accompanied him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  The 17th chapter of John records Jesus’ prayer in the Garden.  Jesus began by acknowledging that “The hour has come.” (John 17: 1).  His last act before his arrest was to model to his disciples what to do when faced with life’s most difficult challenges—pray.  He knew that the best thing he could give his disciples at that moment was to gather them together and to pray for them.  He also knew that the image of him in deep prayer would remain with them for the rest of their lives.  In verses 6-11 he prayed for his disciples who did not fully understand what was to come.  In his prayer Jesus says that God’s glory—his presence and character– was revealed through him, and will continue in his disciples: “And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11).

We need to remember during this time of separation from each other that we are gathered together with the body of Christ when we pray—wherever we are physically located.   It is more important than ever that we join in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout Christendom.  Quoting the old saying, “the family that prays together, stays together,” our pastor pointed out that the saying is true of our spiritual families as well as our flesh and blood families.  He wrote a prayer that he encourages us to pray together every morning as a church family, along with the Lord’s prayer:

Gracious God, I thank You that Your love for me never fails – it is fresh and new each day.  Let me experience beauty and joy today, and give me hope for tomorrow.  Help me share Your love with others.  Bring an end to the coronavirus, heal all who are infected, and protect all health care workers.  Watch over my loved ones, my neighbors, all workers, and the unemployed.  Bless every leader here and around the world who is dealing with this crisis, and help our church to always be an outpost of hope.  I ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

I encourage you to pray this prayer or a similar one every morning with us here in Southern California and with your own church family. Our prayers will rise like a stream of incense, pleasing to God, when we join our voices in prayer.

When Jesus left them, the disciples felt truly alone and were uncertain about the future.  They all gathered and prayed constantly for guidance: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day walk from the city.  When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. . . They all joined together constantly in prayer . .  . “ (Acts 1: 12-14).  There is strength in gathering with your fellow sojourners in faith in your local church and in praying with them as the body of Christ.

While we can’t gather physically at this time to support and strengthen each other, we have found ways to connect with our communities while following the guidelines relating to social distancing, etcetera.  In the beginning, in mid-March, we started with telephone calls and emails and began scheduling telephone conferences with each other.  Then we became proficient with videoconferencing applications.  And we walked in our neighborhoods waving and talking to neighbors behind our masks while keeping a distance of at least 6 feet.  Some received a lift from a crane and visited relatives outside of their windows.  Others “touched” each other’s hands through plastic sheets or bubbles.  Some drove by in a car and honked.  Some delivered food and flowers to friends and neighbors.  Socially distanced meals in backyards with family members at tables spaced more than 6 feet apart are becoming quite common.  And even though we can’t hug each other, we converse, laugh, and FaceTime with distant relatives during the party.  We gather at the same time on Sunday morning for virtual worship.  As I “dressed for church” on Sunday, I joked with Bob that I have to be careful not to wear the same outfit I wore “to church” last Sunday. The yearning to gather together is strong, and we have found ways to maintain our community connections virtually even during these lockdown months.

God lives in each member of the church and gathering together whether physically, telephonically, or virtually, strengthens each of us just as it strengthens the whole.  God listens to the prayers of all, but it is truly beautiful when many are gathered in his name, and the prayer of each heart is sent as one to the Father.  The disciples modeled what we should do when we are at crossroads in our lives and do not know which way to turn: follow the example of the disciples and the old hymn and “take it to the Lord in prayer.”  Gather with the body of Christ, his church on earth, where others will put their arms around you (virtually at this time) and pray with you and for you, and where your prayers can join with the prayers of all.

Peter gives us some practical advice: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith . . . and the God of all grace . . . will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5: 7-10).   As weak and defenseless animals are easy prey for lions, so we are low hanging fruit for Satan to pluck when we are weak, alone, and suffering.  Surround yourself with other prayerful souls, especially in times of need.

Gather by phone or virtually with your friends in Christ who will love, support, and pray for you so that you can live a life pleasing to God.  Take your joys and disappointments to God as an individual and as a member of the body of Christ.  God has promised to be there when two or three are gathered in his name—whether on the phone, on a video conference call, or in other socially distanced ways.  As we discussed last week, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the advocate, to live within each of us. The strength of the Holy Spirit living in each person gathered can fend off attacks by the minions of the evil one.  Call upon the Spirit to build your relationship with him, and to strengthen his body in your church.  He is there for you, as sure as the air you breathe.  And he can be trusted.

Prayer: “Gracious God, I thank You that Your love for me never fails – it is fresh and new each day.  Let me experience beauty and joy today, and give me hope for tomorrow.  Help me share Your love with others.  Bring an end to the coronavirus, heal all who are infected, and protect all health care workers.  Watch over my loved ones, my neighbors, all workers, and the unemployed.  Bless every leader here and around the world who is dealing with this crisis, and help our church to always be an outpost of hope.  I ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.” (Daily Prayer written by Pastor Ken Frese).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the 7th Sunday after Easter are Acts 1: 12-26; Psalm 68; 1 Peter 4: 12-19; 5: 6-11; John 17: 1-11.

Be an Advocate for Christ

May 11, 2020

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.”  John 14: 16-17a.

After reading through the Scriptures for Sunday[1], I pulled my law school yearbook off of the shelf.  The Scriptures reminded me of the yearbook—called The Advocates.  Anticipating law school graduation after an arduous course of study, we were all aspiring advocates for truth and justice.  The Scriptures speak of other advocates of truth—Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but also encourage us to be advocates for the truth—Christ’s truth.  And being a lay advocate for Christ’s truth doesn’t require a law degree or a seminary degree. It only requires a love of God and a desire to share that love.

Jesus is described as our advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1).  Jesus intercedes on our behalf—he argues for us—he defends us. As he was preparing his disciples for his departure from their lives, he assured them that he would ask the Father to send another advocate to help them: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” John 14: 16-17a.  The Holy Spirit is the advocate of truth who lives within us, and helps us in our daily lives.

Jesus left us with many examples of his advocacy before the Pharisees and the priests of the temple. But we also have other documented examples of advocacy by the apostles.  Perhaps the most famous example is Paul’s address in Athens to the Epicureans and Stoics in their council, called the Areopagus.  Paul was a rabbi who had the equivalent of several graduate degrees.  He had studied under the renown scholar, Gamaliel, who was mentioned in the Scripture texts a few weeks ago (See “Stay Safe”).  But instead of reciting Jewish history as he did to his Jewish audiences, Paul quoted Greek poetry to these Greek philosophers, who must have been amazed at his ability to do so.  He quoted Epimendides (“For in him we live and move and have our being,”) and Aratus (“We are his offspring”) (Acts 17: 28) to build a case for the one true God.  He points out that “Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.”  God proved that he is who he says he is: “He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 29, 31b).

Paul began with examples they understood and agreed with him on, to lead them to his message of the resurrected Christ.  We can follow Paul’s lead in learning how to help connect others with the God of the universe.

Peter encourages us to be an advocate for Christ: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:13-22.   You don’t have to graduate from seminary or memorize talking points to be an effective lay advocate.

Letting the kindness and compassion of Jesus shine through you to others is the most authentic way to advocate for Christ.  For those who wish to engage you in conversation about your faith, you can explain how the Holy Spirit helps guide you in your everyday walk through life.  How Jesus is there for you in times of loneliness and despair.  How his Word comforts and guides you through life.  How opening up communication with the God of the universe through prayer sustains you during life’s challenges.  How your church family supported and loved you when you received a scary diagnosis, lost a loved one, faced financial challenges, or suffered in other ways.

When you are in constant communication with God, his light will shine through you to others, and will touch them in ways that you may never know.  Follow the examples set by Jesus and the apostles.  Be an advocate by letting the Christ light shine through you to others, and if asked, tell them how Jesus’ Spirit helps you in language that they understand.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, guide me to be an advocate for Christ’s truth—through my words and actions. Remind me to pick up the phone to offer words of encouragement, humor, assistance, and love to others.  Move me to think of others’ needs, and how I might help them.  Help me shine your light into the lives that I touch today through my prayers for them, in my words to them, and in my actions toward them.  May Your light shine so brightly through me that I become invisible, and they see only You and Your love for them.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the 6th Sunday of Easter are Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.

Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up

May 4, 2020

Do not let your hearts be troubled.” John 14:1

Sunday is Mother’s Day—a day when we all think about our mothers and when mothers think about their children.  They feel the pain their children feel.  They worry about them. They pray for them, particularly if their children do not turn to the God who guided and comforted them as children.  Like St. Monica centuries ago who prayed for many years for her son, Augustine, they pray that their offspring will turn to God in difficult and challenging times, and that God will comfort them, heal them, and lead them to faith.

Motherhood is full of challenges.  And no one knew this better than Susanna Wesley.  She bore 19 children, 9 of whom died in infancy.  She taught her children at home and brought them up in the faith. Their family home burned down twice.  The family was dogged with financial difficulties her entire adult life.  But despite these problems and others, she wrote: “Help me, Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such a way that they may unite my heart more closely with thee.”[1]  She was the motivating and sustaining force behind her children, including John Wesley and Charles Wesley.  She was a strong woman who modeled her faith to her children.

Mothers are well advised to heed Churchill’s words in 1941: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”  His quote is often translated to today’s parlance: “Never, never, never, never give up.” Never give in to despair over your children.  Never stop praying for them. Never give up on them.

This week’s Scripture lessons teach us to never give up on those who are rejected for their beliefs and who reject the righteous.[2]  Jesus prepares his disciples for rejection and what is to come: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14: 1).

Peter reminds us of Psalm 118:22 in teaching how Jesus, the cornerstone, was rejected: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. . .” (1 Peter 2: 7).  Likewise, Stephen faced many who did not believe, and who persecuted him for his preaching of the gospel. He said to them: “You always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7: 51).   But he continued teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, and was stoned to death.  He never gave up on those he was entrusted to nurture.  Paul, then known by his Hebrew name, Saul, witnessed the stoning: “And Saul was there giving approval to his death” (Acts 8: 60b).  Paul, who later became a pillar of the fledgling church, was at that time persecuting Christians. He is a prime example that God can reach out and change anyone—even a murderous enemy.  Keep praying.  Never, never, never, never give up on those you love.

Mother’s Day is a day to remember our own mothers—those who are still with us, and those who have passed on.  It is also a day for thanking God for our families—our spouse, children, and grandchildren.  And it is a reminder that with God nothing is impossible.  Continue to pray for your children. Never, never, never, never give up on those you love.

Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank and praise you for creating the family unit—where parents can love, teach, nurture, guide, and care for their children.  We thank and praise you for the mothers who loved us and never gave up on us.  We thank and praise you for the children you have entrusted to our care—for our own children and grandchildren and for those others that we guide and teach in our extended families, our schools and churches, and in the community at large.  When we are worried and anxious about our children and don’t know how to help them, remind us of Jesus’ words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).  Keep your protective and guiding hand on our children throughout their lives. Give us the insight and resources to help them—and to never, never, never, give up on them.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] Eric Metaxas, 7 Women and the Secret of their Greatness (2015) Nelson Books, pp. 31-57).  This book would make a great Mother’s Day gift.

[2] The Scripture texts for the 5th Sunday after Easter are Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a; 51-60; Psalm 146; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14: 1-14.  Another version of this blog was published on this website in May 2017.

He Knows Your Name

April 27, 2020

The man who goes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.”  John 10:2-4 (Good News Translation)

Who knows your name?  For most of us only family, friends, and colleagues know our names.  Those who know us very well also know the sound of our voice, and we know the sound of their voices.  A mother will wake up from a dead sleep at the sound of her child’s cry from another room, even without the aid of a baby monitor.

The Scripture texts[1] for Sunday explain that God knows our name, and hears our cries: “The man who goes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out. When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.”  John 10:2-4 (Good News Translation).  God hears us when we cry out to him in prayer.  He comes to us in our despair to lead to fresh places where we will thrive. He is with us now in our frustration and anxiety about the future.

Phillip Keller explains that when he and his family lived among the Masai people of East Africa he was moved by the devotion shown by those who owned sheep.  Some of the sheep had grown up as members of the family, much like dogs are to us in our culture.  The lambs were “cuddled, hugged, fed, and loved like one of the owner’s own children.”[2]  Nathan refers to this relationship in the story he told King David about the poor man’s little ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:3).   Keller explains that the good shepherd is up at the crack of dawn to open the gate to lead his sheep out of the sheepfold into green pastures.  The sheepfold is full of debris and dung, and the shepherd does not want the sheep to spend any more time there than necessary.  He calls each of his sheep by name as they pass through the gate.  The sheep know the shepherd’s voice and follow him to pristine pools of water and green pastures.

Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  He calls us by our names and leads us out of the dirty and cramped spaces of our lives, through the gate and into places where we are spiritually fed and nourished: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.” (Psalm 23: 1-3). David had been a shepherd, and he had spent ten years in the dirty, cramped quarters of caves when he was hiding out from Saul.  He wrote about what he knew in Psalm 23.

God heard David’s cries and guided him for years, keeping him safe from Saul: “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.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23: 3-6).  Because of lockdown orders across our land, we, like David, find ourselves in cramped spaces.  We long to be out in the parks, hiking trails, beaches, and in other public places that are closed to us. We long to be with our extended families, friends, and colleagues.  We long to be back in our workplaces, classrooms, churches, and gathering places.  We long for life to return to normal. Yet, like David, we know that the Good Shepherd is with us in our anxiety and frustration.  His words are with us in our despair; they comfort and refresh our souls.

In his letter to Jewish Christians who were driven out of Jerusalem, and to all Christians everywhere, Peter reminded them that God loves them as a shepherd loves his sheep.  Jesus suffered and died on the cross for their sins and for our sins.  Like us, they had strayed from Christ like sheep, but now had returned to him, the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls: “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2: 25).

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, the Overseer of our souls, knows your name.  He knows the sound of your voice.  He knows the unkempt, cramped places where you have been.  He knows how you have been injured, and he feels your pain.  He knows your frustrations and your anxieties about the future.  He is with you in your deepest despair.  He longs to comfort you and take you in his arms.  He will guide your steps when you don’t know where to turn.  When you return to the Shepherd, you will recognize his healing voice as he speaks to you in prayer, in his Word, and through the people he puts on your path.   He wants only the best for you.  Listen to him.

Prayer: Gracious Father, we praise and thank you for being our Good Shepherd—for always watching over us, for leading us out of the quagmires of our lives, for putting balm on our open wounds, for refreshing us, for listening to us, and for feeding us with your nurturing words.  Protect us, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors, and all health care workers and those who are working in essential services during the COVID-19 lockdown to keep us healthy and nourished in body and soul. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday after Easter are Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.  Another version of this blog was published in May 2017 on this website.

[2] Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd (1970) Zondervan, p. 172

What Now?

April 20, 2020

 

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2: 37-38).

 

In January we sat on the stone steps that were excavated in 1967 on the south side of the Temple Mount. These were the steps to the public entrance to the Temple in Jesus’ day. Large numbers of pilgrims climbed those steps during the three main Jewish religious festivals–Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  These were the steps that Jesus and his parents walked up to approach the Temple at Passover—the steps that Jesus sat on when he left his parents to talk to the rabbis at age 12.  It was also on these steps that Peter delivered his Acts 2 speech and baptized 3,000 people (Acts 2:41)[1] in the many mikvahs around the steps.[2]

When we sat on the steps listening to Bill Creasy read the Acts 2 narrative, we had no idea that three months later we would be asking the same question that the people asked Peter on that Pentecost[3] in 32 A.D: “What now?  Where do we go from here?”

The people asked Peter the question because Peter had just told them that the recently crucified and risen Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.  When they heard that, they were heartbroken and wanted to make it right: “’Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Act 2: 36-37). They didn’t know what to do with that information. They were heartbroken and uncertain about the future.

Peter told them that they needed to do two things: first, turn away from their old lives; and second, move forward and be identified as one of Christ’s own through baptism with a commitment to follow him: “Peter said to them, ‘Each one of you must turn away from your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive God’s gift, the Holy Spirit. For God’s promise was made to you and your children, and to all who are far away—all whom the Lord our God calls to himself’” (Acts 2: 38-39, The Good News Bible).  The Greek word, metanoia, often translated as “repentance,” literally means “change of mind”.  As the Good News Bible translation implies, it means making a decision to turn around, to face a new direction. Peter was telling the people that it is not enough just to be sorry for your sins—but that they must live as forgiven people.  Baptism is an outward sign demonstrating that you identify with Christ and is a sign of faith.

Three months after sitting on the steps that Jesus walked on and that Peter preached on, many of us are asking ourselves “What now? Where do we go from here?”  We are also heartbroken and uncertain about the future in the wake of the death and destruction wrought by COVID-19.  But the answer is the same because “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  God never changes, he is still God.  He is still in charge.  He is still with us.  The answer is the same that Peter gave: Use this time of uncertainty to remember that Jesus is Lord.  Turn away from your sin and be forgiven. Be baptized or renew  your baptism and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, committing to live a new life in Christ Jesus.  Use this time to meditate on how God wants you to live your life going forward. Use this time to renew your baptismal commitment to Christ, to the faith.  In the words of the psalmist: use this time to “fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:14).

You have an opportunity now to open your eyes to God and to recommit to Christ Jesus.  You may have been traveling along life’s road for a while not acknowledging or recognizing the presence of God in your life, much like Cleopas and his companion as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  As they walked along the road in the days following the Resurrection, Jesus joined them, but they didn’t recognize him: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31).  Do you see Jesus in your life?  Do you understand that Jesus sent his Spirit to be with you, to help you, to comfort you, and to guide you during your walk through life?  If not, open your eyes.

Prayer:  Jesus, we are sorry for our sins and want to turn our lives around—to live for you. Thank you for sending the gift of your Spirit to be with us.  Holy Spirit, help us fulfill our baptismal vows and live our lives in obedience to God.  Open our eyes to the opportunities you place before us to be your hands and feet to those in need during this coronavirus epidemic.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Third Sunday of Easter are Acts 2:14; Acts 2:36-41; Psalm 116:1-14; Luke 24:13-35.

[2] Many mikvahs were located around the public entrance to the Temple because the pilgrims were required to cleanse themselves, to be ritually purified, before entering the Temple grounds.

[3] In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost, which means 50 in Greek, occurred 50 days after Passover, and was known as the Feast of Weeks, one of the three annual pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem. The birth of the church under grace occurred on Pentecost 32 A.D. as described in Acts 2. The birth of the church under the law occurred on the first Pentecost in 1446 B. C., when Moses was given the law on Mt. Sinai as described in Exodus 32.  The baptism of the 3,000 people by Peter in Acts 2 is also a parallel to the 3,000 killed in Exodus 32.

Stay Safe

April 13, 2020

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. . . You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16: 1; 11).

The mantra of these quarantined times is “Stay safe.”  We hear it from and say it to friends in person, on the phone, and at the end of face-time sessions and zoom conferences.  We write it in hand-written and emailed notes and cards, and in text messages.  Stay safe.  We hear it on every news program and read it in newspapers.  Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, we hardly ever heard someone say “Stay Safe.”  Safety is something that we in the United States hadn’t thought about on an hourly or daily basis—as we have in recent weeks.  On occasion we said “stay safe” to a child or other family member or friend when concerned about his or her safety.

For the most part, we think of our country as a safe place compared to many parts of the world.  At least we did before 9/11 and before COVID-19 struck.   And yet, here we are, sequestered in our homes afraid to go out.  In fact, many of us have been ordered to stay home. And while staying home baking bread, attending zoom and telephone conferences, working at home, cleaning closets, and wearing face masks when we go out is not like being in a war zone, we’ve been cautioned that if we don’t follow the rules, many will die.  Already many more have died in the United States from COVID-19 than were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As I meditated a few days ago on Psalm 16 for Easter Sunday, I realized how well it dovetailed with next Sunday’s Scripture texts.[1]  In the Easter Sunday psalm, we find that like us, David pleaded with God to keep him safe—that he was taking refuge in God, as so many have during these trying weeks:  “Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. . . You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16: 1; 11).  We have turned to God more frequently in recent weeks, asking him to keep us and our loved ones safe, to give us protection and refuge from the invisible killer that lurks beyond the walls of our homes.  We ask God to direct us to the path he wants us to take during these challenging times, and to replace our fears with his peace and joy.

But where does our confidence to rely on God, to seek refuge in him come from?  How can we trust that God cares about us or about our safety?  We find that answer in the Resurrection, and during the 40 days that Jesus walked the earth after he rose from the dead.  John, the only disciple who had not fled when Jesus was crucified, reported, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20: 19-20).

The Resurrection was proof positive that Jesus was who he said he was—the Christ, the Son of God.[2]  Our confidence in turning to God to ask for his protection, to ask that he help get us through these difficult times comes from the fact that we know that he is the everlasting, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever present, creator of the universe.  We know this because he was restored to life after he was killed.  We know this because he appeared to many witnesses during the 40 days he walked on earth after he was resurrected. We know this because when we walk with him, he is with us, helping us along, giving us encouragement when we read his words and when we talk to him.

Believers are not exempt from illness, heartache, and challenges of every kind.  But believers know that God is with them as they ford their way through tough times. The coronavirus pandemic the world is currently facing has come home to America—to New York, to Los Angeles, to Kansas, to Ohio, to your community and to mine.  It is not a far-off threat in China or the Middle East.  It is here; it is now.  It affects you and it affects me and our families. Where can we turn?  Only to the everlasting almighty creator of the universe.

In his speech before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, Peter confirmed why we can have complete confidence in Christ as our Lord and Savior: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5: 30-32).  We know that the creator, the everlasting God of the universe will be with us no matter what happens, and that when we leave this earth, we will be enveloped in the warmth of his love, and will experience joy beyond anything we ever experienced during our earthly lives.

The apostles’ lives were at stake while they were preaching in the Temple after the Resurrection.  The priests who were present when Peter gave his speech wanted to kill them, but Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisee, stepped in and cautioned against killing them.  So instead, “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go” (Acts 5: 40).  Of course, the apostles immediately disobeyed the order and continued to preach and teach that Jesus was the real deal—the Christ, our Savior.

In fact, the apostles considered it a privilege to have suffered on account of preaching the Good News: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 5: 41-42).

Good news indeed. The confidence we have in God as Lord of all, gives us ample reason to praise him continually for his creation and for all that he has done for us.  In the words of the psalmist: “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars; Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created and he established them for ever and ever—he issued a decree that will never pass away” (Psalm 148: 1-6).

Stay safe. Stay home. Stay healthy. And stay hopeful, having full confidence in God on whom we can rely and trust.

Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank and praise you for sacrificing your Son for us and we rejoice in his Resurrection and for the many eyewitness accounts left by those who interacted with him after the Resurrection.  It is the eyewitness evidence of the Resurrection that gives us the confidence to boldly trust and rely on you during these challenging times. Give us strength and guide us in the uncertain times ahead. Amen

[1] The Scripture texts for the Second Week of Easter are Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148;  1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31.

[2] Jesus referenced his divinity several times during his ministry. One such time occurred during his “trial” before the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas asked Jesus, “’Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’ ” (Mark 14:61-62 NIV).