Moving Forward (after a conflict) – Acts 15

Moving Forward (after a conflict) – Acts 15

How frustrating is it when you think a conflict has been settled, but then in a meeting or a family gathering or with your spouse, the conflict pops up again? You’re thinking, ‘seriously? I thought this deal was done?’.

Conflict happens, it always pops up. Not just in strained relationships, but in all relationships. All good, healthy, and loving relationships will have conflict. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’, and because of that, the best thing to do is address it, deal with it (wisely), and move forward.

Acts 15 is a reminder that issues have a way of creeping back into the mix. The issue of circumcision, and the expectations placed on Gentiles in the early church was a huge deal. ‘Certain people’ and ‘some believers’ just can’t let go of it. These of course are Jewish believers, and the ones who are very tied to tradition and law. Here’s where the conflict comes in, from the day of pentecost (Acts 2) and onward (Acts 10,11) God has been pulling (leading) the early church forward. Jesus of course breaks the ‘rules’ (per say) with his life, ministry, death and resurrection. In Acts we see that Jesus, through these early disciples and apostles are doing the same thing.

The Conflict: The Jewish believers (connected to the party of the Pharisees) are still hung up with ‘circumcision’ being a rite of passage into God’s family. To be fair, this is a long standing tradition. However, the new reality is that God embraces and accepts people into his family (now) by faith and not by works. Circumcision is an external sign, and the early church is learning, through experience, through revelation and through OT prophets (Amos 9) that God’s doors are wide open to everyone, not just Jews.

The apostles address the issue in 3 ways: Stories, Revelation & the OT prophecies.  The people who are centre stage here are Paul & Barnabas, Peter, and the closer in for the save is James (the brother of Jesus).
– Paul & Barnabas use stories about how God has been doing amazing things within the Gentiles
– Peter does the same, while also looking back to a dream God used to rebuke his closed mind to the Gentiles and the Law.
– James pulls all the stories together, adds Amos 9:11-12, and comes to a decision.

A letter is written and sent to Gentile believers. James says that ‘we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God’.  Explanation: lose the knife, add the grace. He also goes on to say that the gentiles should at least follow these 4 guidelines: no food that’s been sacrificed to idols, don’t eat animals that have been strangled, don’t drink blood, and don’t commit fornication or adultery.

It seems strange that James would put aside one (huge) law while adding four more. We can see this as a compromise for the sake of community, with a touch of godly living mixed in. We can agree that if fornication & adultery was a common practice among gentiles (mainly the use of prostitutes for pleasure), then saying goodbye to that behaviour is a good thing (yes?). We can also agree that the pagan rituals of drinking blood from strangled animals may not be the best way to live either. (this was a practice that set apart pagans from jews). However, the first guideline may be strange. This also seems like a conflict that should’ve been resolved in Acts 10-11. We could say that James wants to keep peace and community alive and well. So when Gentiles are with Jews, they would do well to not bug them with this freedom to eat these meats. For the sake of community.

The take home: God is moving us forward. Conflicts are normal, but sweeping things under and not addressing them is unhealthy. God doesn’t (necessarily) send conflict, but he/we can use it to move forward towards Him. Up until this point in Acts, we’ve seen a church that has moved from the temple to the courts, from the courts to the streets, from certain laws to an abundance of grace and freedom. Why, because God is moving them forward, and by doing so, making room, providing the way for others (the whole world in fact) to experience forgiveness and life in Jesus.

Two questions to think about here…
– When conflict comes, will you embrace it, address, and allow it to change you and your situation – to move you forward?
– If God is moving us forward, is there anything he’s asking us to let go of, in order for us to get there?

extra quotes to think about…
Having a sense of being loved deeply by Christ allows us to forgive when someone wrongs us because we can afford to be generous. (Time Keller)
God is always pulling us forward…bringing us further…making us better. It’s his way of love and grace. (jm)
Life is lived forward, but understood backwards (Søren Kierkegaard)

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small(er) group questions:

When it comes to conflict, are you an avoid(er), an attack(er), or an address(er)?

Why is it so easy to sweep things under the rug? To avoid(and hope that it goes away)?

Paul, Barnabas, Peter & James share stories, what’s been revealed (dream), and scripture, to deal with the conflict at hand. Are any of these more important? How can all work together to bring resolution and move forward?

What’s the toughest part of Acts 15:1-33? Why?
Lose one law (be it a big one) and add four more (15:28-29). Fair trade?

Do you sense the relational vibe to James’ letter? Does it seem like a lot of love & grace went into it?

(optional) If God is moving us forward, is there anything he’s asking us to let go of for us to get there?

Bipolar Church : Acts 14 (guest post by Ben Wright)

Bipolar Church : Acts 14 (guest post by Ben Wright)

I have a cousin who suffers from bipolar disorder, which is a mental illness characterized by episodes of an elevated mood known as ‘mania’ that alternates with spells of depression. When she’s ‘high’ she has bursts of creativity and she’s able to churn out an entire novel over the course of a week. But when she’s ‘low’ she cuts herself. Sometime’s the cuts run too deep and she winds up in the hospital. The doctors have tried several medications; some have worked, others haven’t. One of the medications she tried alleviated the depression, but it also suppressed all of her positive emotions. She was left with a flat lined emotional response: no highs, no lows.

Many churches in Canada are like my cousin on the wrong medication – flat lined, with no highs and no lows. The early church, the one we read about in the book of Acts, is more like my cousin on no medication – bipolar. As we’ll read in Acts 14, the church came up against the devastating lows of persecution, division, even stoning(s), but it also experienced the thrilling highs of new converts to Christianity (14:4), miraculous healing (14:10) and disciples being
strengthened and encouraged (14:22).

IN ICONIUM (14:1-7)
The significance of Paul’s visit to the synagogue in Iconium cannot be overstated. “First to the Jew, then to the Gentile” was never just a theological construct. It started as an observable pattern based on the missionary journeys of Paul and his travelling companions. Paul took his message to the Jews first simply because it was their promises that were now fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s dangerous for us to equate the synagogue with our present day expressions of the Church. The synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship. It was the centre of Jewish community. Imagine our government offices, town halls, walk-in clinics, police stations and various other elements of civic life all rolled into one. With this understanding, it makes more sense why Paul’s message in the local synagogue was never simply a religious one. You would never have heard Paul speaking about a “personal relationship with God” or about “going to heaven when you die”. Paul’s message in the local synagogue was always: “that which you have longed for is here, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would” (Acts for Everyone, N. T. Wright). This begs the question: what is our society longing for? The answer is complex:

“Peace; justice; freedom; a voice and a vote which will count; health. Around and above all of those, love. Inside and through all of those: to satisfy the hunger of the heart, a hunger which no amount of money, fine houses, fast cars, luxury vacations and love affairs will ever begin to reach” (Acts for Everyone, N. T. Wright, 26).

The task of the Church is to be able to tell the story of Jesus in a way that addresses these deep longings.

Here, Paul’s audience is a ‘crowd’ instead of a synagogue. The city of Lystra was likely home to relatively few Jews, not enough to warrant a formal meeting place. It was here against this pagan backdrop that Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for gods after the dramatic healing of a man who was born lame. Paul tries to set them straight with a gentle critique of paganism. Paul’s sermon is simple: through creation God has revealed himself to all people at all times in all places. As far as sermons go, Paul’s was effective. Even still, the apostles quickly go from being the objects of worship to the targets of hatred fuelled violence.

Notwithstanding Paul’s near death experience at their hands, he and Barnabas return to Lystra, “strengthening and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (14:22). The apostles incorporate a new idea into their preaching: “we must go though many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). God’s kingdom is coming, and in many ways it’s breaking into our present, but the journey is filled with trouble.

The point of this whole narrative section (chapters 13 and 14, which serve as the introduction to the entire second half of the book) is to show the explosive and confusing effects of taking the message of Jesus out into the wider world (Acts for Everyone, N.T. Wright). Our proclamation of the kingdom of God carries with it the revolutionary idea that certain other people are due for demotion. If Jesus is Lord, then Harper can’t be, and neither can Oprah or the balance of our bank account. As we take the message of Jesus from the church into the world we should expect a riot?

(thanks to Ben Wright who gave this talk & wrote this post)

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1. What’s missing from Paul’s sermon in 14:15-17? What important components of a presentation of the gospel does Paul neglect? Why?

2. “Everywhere Paul went there was a riot; everywhere I go they serve tea” (Tom Wright). Does this quote reflect the way people respond to your expression of the Christian faith?

3. Why is it so easy to be a Christian in today’s culture?

4. Are you prepared to be part of a bipolar church that experiences miraculous highs and devastating lows?

Green Light People – Acts 13

Green Light People – Acts 13

What inspires you to take big steps, to make a risky move, to jump into a new adventure? Is it your confidence, the opportunity that’s dangling before you or the fact that you’re backed into a corner and have no choice but to take a leap of faith? Whatever the case may be, life is filled with moments in our lives that require us to GO somewhere new or DO something different.

Acts 13 is the beginning of what becomes a common theme in the New Testament, and really what God’s Old Testament people (Israel) were all about – going to places where God called, led and provided for. If you’re on a journey of what it means to follow Jesus, you will be presented with decisions that lead you into God’s new future for you. Those adventures may include long trips across town(s) or simply walking across the street, but whatever the case may be, next steps in God’s future lead us to making our world better by sharing God’s story or better yet, living out his story.

Paul and Barnabas are sent on a mission – to share a story and a person that has so enthralled this early and growing church community. We see over and over in Acts that the church is always going places, and a byproduct is that they are also growing. Going & Growing. Amidst struggle, pain, prison, persecution, rejection – they keep on gaining ground.

What gives Paul & Barnabas the confidence to leave? Two things actually: the Holy Spirit and the support of their community. Luke tells us that before anybody went anywhere, they prayed and fasted. They took time as a community to see what the Holy Spirit was saying and where God was leading. After that, the church community in Antioch felt comfortable to send two of their leaders out on mission. To know what happened on these first few missions, read the rest of Acts 13.

The question is this, do you ever get the sense that God is giving you a green light to GO?
Do you see more red lights then green?
If you’re early in your journey, can you recognize God’s leading in your life?
If you’ve been at this for a lot longer, can you look back at times when God led you? Did you respond or turn away in fear?
What obstacles do you face after you go?

If you read Acts 13 in full, you’ll see that when ever we go out to do good and share God’s story, there’s a great chance that we’ll encounter some tension, hit some walls or enter into a power struggle. But what you’ll also see is that God shows up – God comes through – God sends you to those who are waiting to hear what you’ve got to say. You’ll also see that not everyone will embrace God’s story. In those cases, we are called to walk away in peace and keep peace. We do what we’re called to do and let God do what only he can do.

What do say…let’s be green light people!

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small(er) group questions:

Do you ever get the sense that God is giving you a green light to GO? To Do? To Risk?

If you’re early in your journey, have you recognized any of God’s leading in your life?
If you’ve been at this for a lot longer, can you look back at times when God led you? Did you respond or turn away in fear?

Have you experienced more Red lights than Green?

What obstacles do you face after you go or after you’ve gone? (look back to Paul’s encounter of the magician in Acts 13)

We see in the first bit of Acts 13 that the church fasted & prayed…with a purpose?
Also worth noting is that missionaries didn’t go out on their own, but under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the favour of the community. What do you think about that?

After being turned down by the Jewish contingent (while still seeing favour from Gentiles) the apostles shook the dust of their feet and kept going? What does that mean to you? (cf. Matthew 10:14)

What does all this look like for us in 2014?

Prayer & Community – Acts 12

When we think about prayer, we often define it as something we do alone. People pray in the morning…or before they go to bed…or as they drive…etc. We make time to be alone and pray. That’s a good thing. Jesus did say to go to your closet, shut the door and pray. He says that to religious priests who use public prayer as way to show off their spiritual clout.

But what about praying with others? Is that something we are encouraged to do? Does community and prayer go hand in hand?

Acts 12 is story about lots of trouble, much persecution, prison…and prayer as a community activity. Some might say it’s ‘Shaw Shank Redemption’ meets ‘Prison Break’ meets ‘Cheers’

The church has just been given the name ‘CHRISTIAN’ in Acts 11. They’ve been identified as people who follow Jesus, look like Jesus and live like Jesus. This of course gets them into trouble. So much so that King Herod decides to act violently upon them. The beginning of Acts 12 sees James (John’s brother) murdered and Peter put into Prison. During what was potentially Peter’s last night on earth, two things happen: the church was praying for him, and an Angel comes to him and basically gets him out of prison (perhaps this was not a coincidence). Peter is blown away by what just happened and goes to Mary’s home. Peter’s church community was gathered there. He knocks on the door; Rhoda answers it and is so shocked that she leaves Peter there and goes back to her company to tell her what happened. Peter keeps knocking, which means that Rhoda either never opened the door or she slammed it shut when running back to the crowd, and the rest of them finally see that he’s back.

This caused two ripple effects: the church was encouraged by God’s hand on the whole situation, and the soldiers who were supposed to be watching Peter got into some major trouble (death sentence).

This past Sunday, Brad Clarke did a wonderful job of teaching on this text. He pointed out two things from two different parts of the story.

“While Peter was in prison, the church prayed for him”

While Peter was in trouble I guess the church could’ve brainstormed on what to do, but the writer of Acts says that they prayed. They used their time, not to worry, not to scheme, not to draw a map on how to execute a prison break – they prayed!

Did they pray because they knew God would answer or because they knew he would hear them? Great question. Probably both. But here’s the thing, we never know that God will answer, or perhaps it would be better to say that we don’t know how God will answer, but we always know that he will listen. Now some might say that it’s not worth praying if he’s not going to answer. That’s not really fair is it. In a (healthy) relationship between a child and a parent, we don’t go to our parent because we know what they will say, but because we know that they will listen. In this story the church prayed because they knew that God was the only one to go to, and that he was and is the only one who can answer. The church’s power is not in it’s physical strength, but in its humility, its love, its compassion, and…its ability to pray.
In Psalm 116, David says, “I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath.” Even King David knew that more important than an answer was the compassionate and loving ear of a heavenly Father who listens to every thing we (say when we) pray.
Now let’s be honest, Peter getting out of prison is quite the miracle, quite the answer to a community who prayed their heart out. It’s an amazing story…one that can effect how we pray today.

Peter went home, “where many were gathered for prayer”

The church wasn’t scattered in their individual homes or cafes across their city – they were together, in one home, in community. The church knew that doing life together was not only better, it was how God intended for us to live.

Church isn’t just a gathering to sing songs, and listen to someone talk, but a community of people who care for each other, encourage each other, pray for one another, and make everyone feel like they’re home.

What we get from Acts 12 is a great story with drama, humour, fears and tears – about a community who prays, a community who stays up waiting for their brother to come home (even if they initially left him at the door) and a community who knows that the God they follow listens better than anyone else, and no matter the answer, they have him (God) and each other.

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small(er) groups questions:

Take some time to read Acts 12:1-19. What part(s) of the story simply intrigue you? What part(s) cause you to question?

Prayer – What’s more attractive, God listening or God answering?

What do you think about David’s words in Psalm 116, “I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath.”?

How can prayer become your go to response? Something more than a last resort? What are some things you can do to see that happen?

The prayer we see in Acts 12 is communal. They were praying together? What does that say about community and our role in it?

Is there anything else you learn about the Early Church from this story in Acts 12? (anything goes here)

Brad said (using Jack Johnson and other things) that we are better together. Would you agree? Disagree? What can you say to that?