My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In search of 2 Acts: A meditation on Acts 28:30-31

The author working on 2 Acts?
Paul lived for two years in his rented house. He welcomed everyone who came to visit. He urgently presented all matters of the kingdom of God. He explained everything about Jesus Christ. His door was always open.” Acts 28:30-31, The Message

Whatever be the truth, the fate of Paul is secondary to that of the gospel. The final picture is of Paul preaching to the Gentiles the same message which he had preached throughout Acts with boldness and without hindrance. All the emphasis lies on that last phrase...Nothing that men can do can stop the progress and ultimate victory of the gospel. I. Howard Marshall in Acts: The Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series

A companion in the journey

And so the Book of Acts ends. Is it “The End” or, more properly, “The End?” In my year and a half personal study of The Book of Acts I have enjoyed the company of fellow-travelers who have accompanied me along the way – John R.W. Stott, I. Howard Marshall, Ajith Fernando, Sir William Ramsay, Paul Maier and a few of the Church fathers (mainly, Chrysostom) – serving at times like experienced tour guides pointing out things a novice like myself might have overlooked. Their observations have been insightful and helpful in understanding the work and I come away with a far more appreciation for it. It is definitely far more than just a history book. Good scholars that they are at times they have disagreed with one another, arriving at different conclusions about certain events in the story.

Certain that Luke was planning a third installment
Take, for example, the “abrupt” conclusion to the book itself. Sir William makes a strong case that Luke had always fully intended on writing 2 Acts but was prevented from doing so because of his premature death in the same persecution that ultimately claimed Peter's and Paul's life. Stott, Marshall and a whole lot of others who know their stuff counter that the enigmatic ending was Luke's intention all along: the great Story begun in Acts 1:8 will continue until its consummation at the End of the Age when the Lord Jesus returns as promised. Maybe both groups are right – while Luke had planned to write about what happened after Paul's release from his two year house arrest in Rome and the rest of his travels to Iberia and back unto martyrdom, Luke would have most likely ended his second treatise on a high note: the Founders may be gone but the Gospel continues to be carried forth into all the world.

Did he find out about the rain in Spain?
Maybe the question to ask is not Why does it end so abruptly but How does the abrupt end make me feel? After all that Paul has been through to get to Rome – getting nearly lynched in Jerusalem, the two-year house arrest in Caesarea which included several hearings beforeboth Jewish and Roman officials, the harrowing journey to Rome and at long last arriving there only to discover the same obstinacy among his Jewish brethren there as he found back in Palestine – is this really how his story should end? It leaves me wanting to know what happened to him, specifically with his hearing before the Roman Senate? As some speculate, was he released? And did he make his trip to Spain? Or did his two-year genial house arrest in Rome take a drastic turn due to the madness of Emperor Nero which led to his speedy demise and martyrdom? Whatever happened to Luke? Did he, as I have already speculated, die in the same wave of persecution that claimed the lives of Paul and Peter? Or was that his intent all along - to leave us hanging so that we would put ourselves in Paul's shoes and carry on what he and the other apostles began?

Frankly, after a year and a half of ruminating on this text I don't want it to end. I want to hear “the rest of the story”? I want to read Luke's proposed “third installment” even if he never intended on writing one. What's odd to me is that after my year-long sojourn in the patriarchs in 2011, I was eager to return to the study of Jesus as told by Luke in 2012. But now after a year and a half in Acts, I am hesitant to leave the study of Paul, Peter, Luke, Timothy, Aristarchus and all the brothers. Not because I don't think I need to learn more of Jesus – God knows I do – but simply because I have grown attached to these guys and their daring and their resolute determination to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. I want to know what happened to them, what they accomplished and their end. I think that's why I began reading Eusebius (The Church History) - out of the desire to learn of the fates of the men who followed in the path of Peter and Paul who in turn were following Christ.

Which brings me back to the idea of a Third Volume. I want the story to continue. And maybe that is the genius of Luke in the choice of his ending – it makes you want to look for more installments. And ultimately you do find them but not within Scripture so much as in the lives of those who have gone before us and those who continue to carry the gospel (myself included) up to the present time. Like Lloyd Oglivie once wrote, “The abrupt ending leaves us with the challenge and opportunity to allow the Spirit to write the next chapter in the Book of Acts today in and through us!” I pastor a small fellowship in a small town in a county in our State not known for its economic power nor political clout. But it's the place where he has planted me and to the best of my ability I will continue to preach the Scriptures, baptize and teach disciples and do all the regular kinds of stuff that come with the territory of gospel work. One day another will carry on the work I do now and within a few years after my departure to another post or to my inheritance, my name will be less known but Lord willing, the gospel will continue to be preached at the fellowship that currently meets at the corner of 8th and Leonard in Chetek. It's how it should be. Like Frodo reminded Sam while they were ascending the steps of Cirith Ungol that while the great tale never ends “...the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later – or sooner” (“The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” in The Two Towers). Until that time, may I be found faithful and play whatever is my part to play in the greatest Story ever in the making.

Dr. Paul Maier's conclusion of his little book First Christians is a fitting conclusion to my devotional study of Acts:

All of the apostles endured great hardships for the faith, many suffering martyrdom itself. Not one of them could see the ultimate triumph of Christianity – except through the eyes of faith and the inspiration of the same Spirit who arrived with the first Pentecost and never withdrew. Though at the time the Christian cause seemed persecuted, burned, crucified, beheaded, and even eaten out of existence by the greatest power in the world, a greater power was at work that would see Christianity conquer Rome a little more than two centuries later, and “the ends of the earth” after that, in Jesus' own prediction.”

It was Christ, not Caesar, who captured the future.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I'm a front-line worker, too

Paul walked here
And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.” (Acts 28:14, NIV)

At the forty-third milestone was a place called Forum of Appius. Both here and ten miles farther on at a village named Three Taverns, Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus were happily surprised to find a delegation from the Christians of Rome. The church there had been alerted to his arrival, and possibly many of the names found in Roman 16 were clustering along the sides of the Appian Way in a grand welcoming committee. What enormously cheered the travelers must have astonished Julius.” First Christians by Paul L. Maier

Like all pastors, I get a lot of mail from ministries of various causes and opportunities appealing for my money, prayer and whatever else they think I can offer them in their hour of need. Yesterday I opened a packet from a respected ministry which had a cover letter that had in large bold letters at the top -

Adopt a Front-Line Worker

This particular ministry is an advocate for the persecuted Church and I'm sure they do a lot of good stuff. And I get what they're trying to do – round up people who will pray and, if possible, give to a gospel worker in countries considered closed or hostile toward the gospel. I have no problem with that. What I take issue with is the phrase “front-line worker”. It makes me think of an evangelistic outreach that a number of fellowships in our area partnered together with back in the mid-90s. It was a worthy cause, the church who hosted the event was packed out nightly and several individuals made professions of faith. But every night, right before the offering was received, the leader of the traveling ministry would proudly tell us that his ministry was a “front-line” ministry and that our dollars were helping move the gospel forward. I'm sure they were. And I'm sure he and his associates used the money for the cause they said it was for. But that phrase - “front-line ministry” - stuck in my craw. Because the implication was that other ministries – specifically, my ministry with its hum-drum Sunday to Wednesday to Sunday rhythm was...well...not the front-line. I was “playing” while he and his team were “fighting”. I was working a garbage scow on the back-waters of the Pacific while he was in harm's way in Leyte Gulf.

Okay, maybe it was what he was taught to say by the larger ministry he worked for. Or the packed house and the eager and willing response of the crowd got him a little carried away in the moment (but night after night after night?) I wouldn't be surprised if some of those same folks who heard that appeal took money they otherwise would have normally given their fellowship and gave it to this guy and his “front-line” work. After all, if you give it to your local fellowship some of your offering may just go to pay the light bill whereas supporting a “front-line” worker doing “front-line” work advances the kingdom “in the trenches” where the real “fight”is at (or so some folks would be inclined to believe.)

But in the Kingdom of God, where is the “front-line”? About a hundred years ago when doughboys from America marched off to France to beat back the Hun they sang the ballad by George M. Cohan, “Over There”

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

If you don't have an aversion for this kind of music, it's the kind of song to get you marching somewhere, preferably to the “front lines” to resist the evil empire that threatens to subdue freedom-loving people everywhere. In a similar way, when we pray over someone bound for the mission field in what used to be called “darkest” Africa it is fairly normal to think of these individuals as some elite squad being inserted deep behind enemy lines for the saving of many Private Ryans while we carry on with our quiet but otherwise mundane lives back in the States. Except for this – it doesn't wash with the record of Scripture which says that the so-called “front-line” is not over there but everywhere. Which means all of us – not just the traveling-evangelist type or the missionaries bound for war-torn South Sudan – are engaged in the epic struggle to advance the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.

A novel Church growth plan
Following the martyrdom of Stephen in the mid-30s, life in Jerusalem for disciples of Jesus was chaotic. Saul is on a rampage rounding up followers of the Messiah everywhere he finds them. Most don't stick around to give him that pleasure but do what people have always done in times like this – get out of Dodge.

Forced to leave home base, the followers of Jesus all became missionaries. Wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus.” (Acts 8:4, Msg)

They were running for their lives but they weren't mum of why they were fleeing. They didn't seek to keep a low profile. They shared the faith and spread the Word. The irony is palpable – even while he is trying to stomp the movement out Saul is inadvertently helping it spread. As merchants and traders wherever they landed they found opportunity to share about Jesus the Messiah. Some time later when the dust settles and Peter and John are sent down to Samaria to confirm the rumors that many in this region have received the gospel, they find that Philip, a former associate of Stephen's, and others like him have been here for awhile working the Samarian fields. All that's left for the apostles to do is lay their hands on these new Samarian disciples and affirm God's work and impart Spirit baptism (see Acts 8:14-17).

Some of those unnamed missionaries from Jerusalem got further afield than Samaria, however.

Once a hub of the Christian movement
Those who had been scattered by the persecution triggered by Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but they were still only speaking and dealing with their fellow Jews. Then some of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had come to Antioch started talking to Greeks, giving them the Message of the Master Jesus. God was pleased with what they were doing and put his stamp of approval on it—quite a number of the Greeks believed and turned to the Master.” (Acts 11:22-24, Msg)

When the home office hears about the strange happenings in this city in what is today southern Turkey they deputize Barnabus to go up there and investigate. What he finds there is a thriving fellowship of believers that is having influence in their community without any help from the apostles in Jerusalem. In time, he'll recognize that they need the help of a good teacher and will go in search of Saul the former persecutor and invite him to return to Antioch to join the ministry there. But the point is way before Barnabus or Saul arrived “over there”, the battle for Antioch was being capably handled by men whose names we'll never know.

Years later when Paul at long last arrives in the capital city of the Empire he doesn't come as a master tactician ready to take the fight to the pagans there. On the contrary, he comes as a prisoner who is warmly greeted by a large delegation of disciples of the Church of Jesus in Rome who have heard rumors of his arrival. Long before Paul and later Peter arrive in the Capital, unnamed disciples had beat them to it and were gathering together regularly to strengthen and encourage one another. 

A few of the Church's greatest hits

He was all the rage in his day
There will always be men and women who God raises up to articulate his message for a certain time and hour. We'd be tempted to call them “stars” if it weren't so unbiblical – Peter, Paul, John, Origen of Alexandria (3rd Century), Augustine (4th Century), St. Benedict and St. Patrick (6th Century), Bernard of Clairvaux (12th Century), Martin Luther and John Calvin (16th Century), George Whitfield and John Wesley (18th Cenutry), William Carey, Adoniram Judson and Hudson Taylor (19th Century), Billy Graham, Loren Cunningham and Keith Green (20th Century). For a short time they and a lot of others I haven't mentioned captured the attention of their generation and were in the spotlight, front-liners the lot of them. But for every D.L. Moody who barnstorms across the Midwest all the way to England proclaiming the gospel to packed houses and theaters there are how many other Sunday School teachers quietly sharing the love of God with the kids in their Sunday School class? In the late 1800s, Moody was a household name in evangelical circles but who had heard of Edward Kimball who had been Moody's Sunday School teacher and had been the very first to share the gospel with him? In the late 20th Century Billy Graham was pretty much everywhere sharing the gospel to packed auditoriums in city-wide crusades. Who didn't at that time turn on the television only to find that their regular programming had been preempted by this evangelist from North Carolina who was calling people to repent and be born again? But who remembers Albert McMakin, the farmhand on the farm that Billy grew up on who finally persuaded his boss' son to come to a series of revival meetings by promising he could drive the truck? Billy did and though he was a Presbyterian went forward to receive Christ. Who can tell how that brokered deal between McMakin and Graham has influenced the course of history?

His name will live on
Definite front-liners
That story has occurred repeatedly throughout the history of the Church and will continue to be repeated until her consummation. In the congregation I serve as pastor there is a couple who have been serving with Youth With A Mission for over twenty years now. During that time they have led many schools in Hawaii, the Philippines and now northwest Wisconsin. Many of their former students are missionaries themselves now in Asia and many other places in the world. In the 1980s they were farming south of Chetek and Duane was pastoring a small fellowship in nearby New Auburn. Following the tragic death of Keith Green in 1982, there were a series of memorial concerts all across America. Duane and his wife, Lois, attended one of them and though they were serving Jesus as both farmers and individuals serving a local fellowship they stood when the invitation was given to go wherever the Lord would lead them. The way Lois describes the moment it was almost impulsive but standing up in that meeting has led to a life of ministry to foreign nationals in places in out-of-the-way places like Dbunko, Palanan, Philippines and Weyerhaeuser, Wisconsin. Believe me, they, too, are front-liners. Their faithfulness and obedience has led to the advancement of the Kingdom of God as well. They just don't get the press that Franklin Graham or Bill Hybel does.

So we can go ahead and adopt that “front-line” worker in the County of Timbuktu if we feel so inclined so long as we don't forget that wherever we are – in Chicago, in Minneapolis or in Chetek, Wisconsin or Wairaka, Uganda – the front line is not “over there” but right here if we have eyes to see it. All the more reason to take the Apostle Paul's words to heart, to “...don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort” (1 Cor 15:58, Msg). I wholeheartedly agree.