Sunday, May 31, 2015

Children of Encouragement

Children of Encouragement
Acts 4:36-37
            We know the name Barnabas.  We know he traveled with Paul—was one of his trusted companions on some of his missionary journeys.  What else do we know about him?  Where did he come from?  What does his name mean?
            We first meet Barnabas in the fourth chapter of Acts.  Luke is describing the communal living arrangements of the early Christians.  We should say here that they probably didn’t live together.  Remember, the church started on Pentecost with 120 or so members.  By the end of the day there were about 3,000 new converts.  From then on, Luke tells us, new members were being added daily.  While we know at least some of these new believers left Jerusalem at the end of the holiday celebration, most of them remained behind.  If they were living together, where would they have stayed?  There wouldn’t be a building in Jerusalem big enough to hold them except the Temple.  They might worship there, but they couldn’t live there.
            We do know they came together regularly for worship and for fellowship.  We also know they held everything in common, even selling property to help provide for those too poor or too infirm to support themselves.  It’s this activity—selling property for the relief of the poor—that first brings Barnabas to our attention.
            His given name was Joseph, and he was from Cyprus.  He was a Levite.  That made him a member of the priestly class.  Remember, Levi’s sons, beginning with Aaron, were set apart by God for the care of the tabernacle.  It was their task—and their honor—to serve before the Lord, first in the tabernacle and later in the Temple.  They did not have an inheritance with the twelve tribes of Israel; rather, they were set apart for holy work.
            We’re introduced to Joseph, and then told immediately that he was called Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.”  He is used as an example of those who sold property and laid the money at the feet of the apostles.  Like many of the new believers, he thought first of the needs of others and not of his own.
            Luke mentions Barnabas’ good deeds twice more in the early chapters of Acts.  In chapter 9:26-27 we read of Paul’s return to Jerusalem after his conversion and his early preaching.  The Jerusalem church wants nothing to do with him, remembering how he persecuted them.  The apostles are both skeptical and afraid.  Barnabas intervenes.  He brings Paul into the gathering of believers, puts an arm around his shoulders (at least figuratively), and tells the story of Paul’s conversion.  It is Barnabas who is responsible for Paul’s acceptance into the fellowship of believers.
            In Acts 11:19-27 we read of the early days of the church in Antioch.  Christian visitors to the city are preaching Jesus Christ to the Jews there.  Others preach to the Hellenists (Greeks).  The Jerusalem church is concerned about this mixing of Jews and Gentiles, so they send Barnabas to review the situation.  He believes that everything is working well, and encourages the new believers—but that’s not all.  He travels to Tarsus, where Paul is living, and brings him back to Antioch, where the two of them stay for a year.

            Barnabas.  Bar nabas.   Son of encouragement.  Bat nabas means “daughter of encouragement.”  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could be children of encouragement?  Barnabas was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”  What could we say about someone that would be more important?  Paul might have been the better preacher, the more dynamic leader, the more impassioned writer, but where would he have been without the encouragement of Barnabas?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Children of Abraham-Part IV

The Children of Abraham—Part IV
Genesis 22:15-18
What does this mean for civilization today?
            What does it mean that the three great monotheistic religions of the Middle East all claim the same man as their ancestor?  That they all claim to worship the same God?  That they were all spawned in the same bit of earth?
            I believe it means there should be no enmity between them.  They’re family.  Like brothers from the same parents, or at the very least cousins from the same grandparents, they have more in common than they have differences.  Surely they could find a way to honor the relationship while acknowledging and respecting the differences!  It seems logical that they would say, “Of course we have differences, but let us recognize our common heritage and strive to get along rather than fight each other.
            On the other hand, we know that no battles are as intense as family feuds.  No wounds are as deep as those caused by relatives.  No pains as strongly felt, and no wrongs so unforgiven as those between brothers and sisters.  We all know families where the original rift occurred generations ago.  Over time those situations have festered, deepened, and become infected until it seems nothing can ever bring the warring parties together.  How can there possibly be peace in those families?
And so we have Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—three religions stemming from the same source, alike in so many ways, but allowing their differences to keep them from celebrating their common heritage.  What does this mean for civilization today?
It seems to mean war.  Although most Muslims (including the vast majority in this country) practice their religion as one of peace, many in Islam want to see Israel and Judaism destroyed—if possible, wiped off the face of the earth.  Judaism seems willing to live peaceably alongside Islam if the practitioners of that religion will only recognize its right to exist and leave it alone.  But when attacked, Judaism’s practitioners retaliate on a level much higher than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Their retaliation is never equal, but always more devastating.  There are also those who seem to goad Muslims to fight.
Christianity seems caught somewhere in the middle.  It recognizes its relation to Judaism, and feels the need to make sure it has a right to continue.  Christianity’s support of Judaism may not always have been what it should be, but today, with few if any exceptions, nations with a large Christian population recognize Israel’s right to exist, and Judaism’s value to the world of religions.  How do we remain friendly and supportive to peaceful Jews and Muslims while taking a stand against those on both sides who don’t want peace?
On the other hand, there is a significant part of the Muslim population that wants to see Christianity destroyed as well as Judaism.  It’s difficult to be supportive of those who want to do you in, and difficult to know how to respond.  Christians seem to be walking a very thin tightrope in this struggle.
Since most—if not all—who read this will consider themselves Christians, the majority of readers will remember Jesus Christ’s statement about being the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to God except through him.  They will say Christianity should be the dominant religion, and that the others should recognize and accept the Messiahship of Jesus Christ.  That, of course, would put an end to the controversy.  It’s not likely to happen.
I suggest another solution—only a starting point, but at least a place to begin dialog.  In Genesis 22:18, God’s messenger says to Abraham, “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed…”  Perhaps we could, as brothers and sisters, physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham, sit at the same table long enough to accept this statement as a way to begin a conversation.  Is it possible that, in this world that seems so hopelessly adrift, we, working together, could provide an anchor?  That together we could say to the world, “Turn to God:  let us meet under God’s banner and start to heal the planet?”
What could this mean for civilization tomorrow?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Children of Abraham-Part III

The Children of Abraham—Part III
Romans 9:3-16
            We’ve talked about Ishmael and Isaac.  Now we come to Paul.  What does he have to say about the children of Abraham?  Sometimes trying to follow his logic is difficult.  He has a tendency to develop his arguments slowly, piece by piece, so we have to go way back to find the beginning.  Here, Paul has been talking about how distressed he is that many of his fellow Jews have not accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah. 
            We should remember that at first Paul (then called Saul) was among those who not only did not believe Christ was the Messiah, but actively fought against and oppressed those who did.  Then, in an instant, his whole world was turned upside down, and his outlook radically changed.  Here we find him in his calling as apostle to the Gentiles.  Still, he has not forgotten from whence he came, and to which people he belongs by birth.
            His kinsmen—by human birth—are Israelites, “and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”—all the elements of Judaism going back to the wilderness experience following the Exodus, the time that made them into a nation, God’s holy, chosen people.
            Paul adds, “To them belong the patriarchs,” tracing God’s calling even farther back—all the way to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the three with whom God first established the covenant.  Paul sees his people as cut off from God because they missed the next step in their spiritual development—recognizing Jesus Christ as who he said he was:  The Son of God.
            Paul makes the case that perhaps not all Israelites are really children of Israel.  If that sounds confusing, it’s because Paul is developing his argument carefully.  We have to read farther to see where he’s going.  Paul will make a difference between those born of the flesh and those born of the spirit.
            “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God,” Paul says, “but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”  Paul says that it isn’t enough to be a physical offspring of Abraham.  One must have accepted the promise of God in order to be a true child of Abraham.  This sounds very much like what John says in the prologue to his gospel (1:13):  “…who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
            Paul expresses deep sorrow over his fellow Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus Christ as Messiah.  At the same time he makes it clear that he believes God has extended the promise to include all those who chooses to follow Christ.  As he says in his letter to the Galatians (3:7-8):  “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham…”
            This may sound a little strange to us—the idea that God preached the gospel to Abraham—until we remember that the word “gospel” means “good news.”  The good news to Abraham was that God wanted to make a covenant with him, to set him and his descendants apart for God’s holy purpose.
            And now—according to Paul—that’s us!  We are the inheritors of the promise.  We are the people of the covenant.  We are the ones whom God has made, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…” (1 Peter 1:9).

            What does this mean for civilization today?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Children of Abraham--Part II

The Children of Abraham—Part II
Genesis 21:1-7
            Ishmael has been born.  Hagar, Sarah’s servant, has given Abraham an heir.  Now his wealth—all his flocks, his tents, his goods—will not go to some distant relative, but to a son born of his own body.
            But God says, “Ishmael isn’t the one.  He will be great.  He will found a dynasty.  His offspring will be blessed; but this isn’t the one I promised you.  That one will come through Sarah.”
            Remember the story of the three men who visited Abraham?  You’ll find it in Genesis 18.  One day, Abraham is sitting by his tent, relaxing, because it is too hot to work.  He looks up and sees three men standing before him.  He doesn’t know who they are, where they came from, or how they appeared so suddenly, but none of that matters.  Middle Eastern hospitality demanded that he treat them as honored guests.  Not only does he prepare a meal for them, he also serves it himself.
            When they finished, God, speaking through them (for they were God’s messengers), promised that within the year Sarah would bear Abraham a son.  This would be the one God had promised.  This would be the one whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the grains of sand upon the shore.  This would be the one whose children’s children’s children would inherit the Promised Land—Canaan, flowing with milk and honey.  Isaac would not only inherit Abraham’s considerable wealth, but God’s promise as well.
            Remember Sarah’s reaction?  Like a good Middle Eastern wife she did not show her face or interrupt the men as they ate and conversed.  Instead she hid inside her tent, where she could see and not be seen, hear and (she supposed) not be heard.  She could hear what the men said when they promised Abraham a son from Sarah, but they could also hear her.  She laughed.
            And why not?  She was well past child-bearing age.  Perhaps Abraham was still fertile, but she certainly wasn’t.  How many years had they tried?  How long had they hoped—hoped and tried until there was no more hope, and no more reason to try.
            Sarah laughed—and the men heard her.  Of course she denied it!  To do otherwise would be to dishonor her husband in front of his guests.  But the men wouldn’t let her get away with it.
            “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  What a question!  Of course nothing is too hard for the Lord!  “God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform” the old hymn says—and we know it’s true, because we have experienced God’s power in our lives.  The God who has changed us can certainly defy the laws of nature.  After all, it is God who established those laws. 
            And so it came to pass, at the time God had promised, Sarah gave birth to a son—Isaac.  From Isaac came Jacob.  From Jacob came the twelve sons who would be the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.  From them came the people who fulfilled God’s promise.  Abraham’s descendants are certainly without number.  They have spread outward from the land God gave them to dwell in every part of the world.  Through them God has blessed the nations in science, in music, in literature, in medicine—in almost any field you can name. 
They have also given the world the concept of monotheism, a concept which has more followers than any other religion on this planet.  These are also the people who have suffered much at the hands of those who would destroy them.  But still they flourish.

            What does this mean for civilization today?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Children of Abraham--Part I

The Children of Abraham—Part I
Genesis 16
            Before Isaac there was Ishmael—in fact, Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son.  Because customs of the day were so different from ours it is difficult for us to think in the ancient mindset.  It will be necessary for us to do so in order to understand how marriage and inheritance worked.
            The most important reason for marriage in the ancient world was to have children.  Inheritance depended on having offspring.  Without an heir the property would pass out of the family.  This meant not merely children, but sons—and Abraham had none.  He was eighty-six years old and he and Sarah were childless.
            It was assumed that if a couple were not able to have children it was the woman’s fault and not the man’s.  They must have found it inconceivable (pun intended) that men could not father children.  Medical knowledge has come a long way since then.  Sarah, knowing how important it was for Abraham to have a son, came up with a solution.  He would take her servant, Hagar, as his second wife.  Perhaps she would be able to bear him an heir.
            And bear one she did.  Sarah’s solution, however, turned out to be more of a problem than a help.  When Hagar became pregnant she felt she was superior to her mistress.  After all, she had been able to do what Sarah could not—the one thing necessary for the future of the family.  Human nature being what it is, Sarah held Abraham responsible for the mess.  Like a good husband he had done what his wife had asked.  Now he found himself in trouble for it.  Rather than fight his wife, he let her handle the situation.  Sara “dealt harshly” with Hagar, who ran away. 
            Here’s the situation:  Hagar is pregnant and alone in the wilderness, presumably without food or water or any hope of finding any.  Sarah is at least partially content because she has gotten rid of an irritation.  Abraham would have been uneasy at best, since the mother of his unborn child had run away.  He was worse off than he had been before.  Now he had an heir, but the heir had been taken away.
            As we might expect, God enters the picture.  Greek drama often features a deus ex machina, one of the ancient gods who miraculously appears and works everything out.  We have such a God—a God who works things out not just for the stage, but for the good of all creation.  God, YHWH, the Holy One of Israel, tells Hagar to return to Abraham and Sarah.  Everything will work out.  Her son will be born and will grow to be his own man.
            Later, in Chapter 21, we find that Ishmael has indeed come into the world, as has Isaac, the son Sarah bore Abraham.  Once more there is trouble in the camp, this time between the two boys.  Once more Sarah wants the irritation eliminated.  This time Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with food, water, and God’s blessing.  God tells Abraham that while Isaac will be the heir of Abraham’s goods and God’s promised blessing, Ishmael will also be blessed.
            And so he was.  Those who follow the Islamic faith claim their descent from Abraham just as do the Jews.  The difference is that the Jewish descent is through Isaac, while the Islamic descent is through Ishmael.  In fact, the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son is part of the Islamic tradition.  In that version the son is Ishmael rather than Isaac.

            God created Islam as surely as Judaism.  They are two separate threads God has used in weaving the fabric of the world.  What does this mean for civilization today?