Sunday, March 27, 2016

Contents Under Pressure

Contents Under Pressure
Ephesians 4:30-32
There’s a church sign that reads:  “Some people are kind, polite, and sweet-spirited until you try to sit in their pews.”  My wife and I have—once—been asked to move in a church we were visiting.  Actually, there was a reason for it.  The woman had a hearing problem, and that particular pew was right in front of the speaker.  It was the only place in the sanctuary where she could hear what was going on in the service.  We later joined the church and became good friends with the couple who had asked us to move.
Still, it’s a disconcerting experience.  Perhaps the answer is to arrive just before the service begins and not sit down until the opening hymn has started.  By that time most people are established in their customary seats and your chance of raising someone’s ire is minimal.
Of course, there is another solution:  sit in the first couple of pews.  Hardly anyone ever sits there.  I guess they’re afraid of catching the preacher’s attention too much during the sermon.
It’s interesting what sets people off.  I remember reading somewhere that it’s not the major problems that frustrate us but the little things:  trying to find a parking space; not being able to get the necklace untangled; untying the knot in a child’s shoelace; not being able to answer the phone in time.  Life’s little frustrations drive us over the edge.
Whatever it is that upsets us, we know that somewhere out there is a frustration with our name on it, just waiting to catch us unaware.  At just the wrong time it attacks, getting under our skin and causing us to behave in a way that makes us unpleasant to be around.  More than likely there are several small things that pile on top of each other, until the pressure becomes so great that we explode.
Geffory Crowell said:  “I was looking at an aerosol can this week and saw the words ‘Contents under pressure.’  Some of us should have this pasted on our foreheads.”  I agree with him—to a point.  I believe most, if not all of us should wear such a sign.  While there are some people who are walking pressure cookers, always within a few degrees of explosion, each of us has a triggering point—the place where, if pushed past it, we lose control.
Some psychologists say that we can cure at least a third of our problems merely by identifying them.  Perhaps that’s true.  If so, getting to know our boiling point and recognizing when we are getting close to it may help us avoid saying and doing things that we will later regret.
I think Paul understood the seriousness of losing control.  That could be why he wrote the words of today’s scripture passage to the church at Ephesus.  When we lose our tempers we not only hurt and upset those around us, we also grieve the Holy Spirit.  If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), then allowing ourselves to exhibit bitterness, wrath, and anger is diametrically opposed to the work the Holy Spirit is trying to accomplish in us. 
We know we cannot do this alone.  We need the help of the Spirit, growing within us, changing us, making us more like Jesus Christ and less likely to let the pressure get to us.  We can’t do much about the outside events that build pressure within the aerosol cans we live in, but we can learn to ask for help in letting the pressure dissipate.  If anger and wrath grieve the Holy Spirit, then certainly asking for help in pressurizing times must be pleasing to God. 

Then we can change the signs we wear from “Contents under pressure,” to “Sealed by the Spirit.”

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Things We Don't Do

The Things We Don’t Do
Acts 26:1-29
            We don’t spend much time reading the last part of the Book of Acts—and it’s too bad we skip these chapters.  Beginning with Acts 21:17, which tells of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, to the end of the book we read about Paul’s last—and perhaps greatest—witness. 
            After his arrest, Paul speaks to the people, appears before the Roman tribune and then before the Sanhedrin, is sent to Felix, the governor, appeals to Caesar, and is sent to Rome, where he lives out the days until his execution.  To the end he continued to witness.  The final words of Acts (28:31) tell us that Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
            Would that we could all claim this as the epitaph of our lives.
            It’s a part of this story that I would like to focus on today.  Felix was succeeded as governor by Porcius Festus, and it was before him that Paul made his appeal to Caesar—his right as a citizen of Rome.  The question of why Paul appealed to Caesar would make an interesting study, but that is not the subject of our discussion here.  It will have to wait for another time.
            While Paul was waiting to be sent to Rome, King Agrippa and his consort Bernice visited Festus.  The king developed an interest in Paul’s case and asked to hear him.  Paul’s oration (sermon?) and Agrippa’s reaction take up all of Chapter 26.  We will focus on the end of Paul’s defense and Agrippa’s answer.
            Paul describes his conversion on the Damascus road, and his subsequent ministry to the Gentiles.  He tells Agrippa that he was arrested by the Jewish leaders because of his work proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Festus interrupts and accuses Paul of madness:  “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you insane.”
            Insightful of Festus to recognize Paul as a great scholar.  Far less insightful is his attribution of Paul’s radical testimony to insanity.  After denying the truth of Festus’ claims, Paul turns to Agrippa.
            “King Agrippa,” Paul says, “do you believe the prophets?  I know that you believe.” 
            Agrippa answers, “Almost you persuade me to become a Christian.” (KJV)
            Almost—but not quite.  Some of the saddest words in the Bible.  Paul had done all he could.  He presented his argument succinctly yet completely.  We know through what we read in Acts and in his epistles that Paul was a persuasive speaker and writer.  His spoken words had caused many to believe in Jesus Christ.  His written words were influential in shaping the early church as well as the church today.  Yet with all his eloquence, he couldn’t convince Agrippa.
            Sydney J. Harris says:  “Regret for things we did can be tempered with time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”
            How true.  Whether it involves failure to commit our lives to Jesus Christ, or once having done so, failing to live in his will and his service, what we don’t do may haunt us for all eternity. 
            We don’t have to make the same mistake King Agrippa made.  We can accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and, having done so, spend our lives producing the fruit of the Spirit.  We must do both.
            What will you choose?


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Beautiful Feet?

Beautiful Feet?
Romans 10:15
            In many cultures feet are not considered beautiful.  In China, in an earlier time, women with normal-sized feet were looked upon as undesirable.  If a family wanted to ensure their daughters’ marriageability, they began to bind her feet at a very early age to keep them from growing.  As the feet tried to grow to normal size, the binding kept them from doing so, breaking the bones in the process.  Painful?  Yes—but absolutely necessary (they thought) to make girls desirable to prospective husbands.  By the time the woman reached adulthood she was unable to stand on her feet because they were too small and weak to support her weight—but she made a beautiful bride!
            I realize this is an extreme example.  To the best of my knowledge the practice is no longer followed, although I suspect that in a country as large as China, with as many remote locations as that nation would have, vestiges of the old practice may remain.
            Outside of those ads that feature people swimming, we see very few commercials on TV with barefoot actors.  Recently there has been one campaign which showed women walking around with bare feet, but from my observation this campaign is an exception.
            Certainly in first century Palestine, when Paul wrote these words, feet would not have been the most glamorous part of the body.  People wore sandals as they traveled the dusty roads of the country and streets of the city.  They could not keep their feet clean.  One of the marks of a gracious host was to provide water for washing the feet when guests entered the house.  In wealthy homes there would be a servant to perform this unpleasant task.  This is the custom that lay behind Jesus’ condemnation of Simon, the Pharisee, in Luke 7:36-50. 
            Knowing this helps us understand the significance of Paul’s statement to the Romans.  He has written his famous progression (10:14-15), asking how people will be able to recognize the existence, presence, and love of a God about whom they haven’t heard.  Someone has to bring them the gospel.  He concludes by saying, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news.”
            Paul doesn’t mention the rigorousness of the preachers’ sermon preparation, or the brilliance of their thought processes, or the eloquence of their speech, the beauty of their voices, the energy of their gestures, or the grandeur of their presence in the pulpit.  He only mentions their feet—a most unattractive part of their body.
            This isn’t original with Paul.  He’s abbreviating a passage from Isaiah (52:7). 
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your Lord reigns.”

                If feet were a problem in first century Judea, they certainly weren’t any less of one in Isaiah’s world.  The prophet must have had the same thoughts as Paul.  The gospel is so important, so potent, that it beautifies even the feet of the one who brings it.    If we open our spiritual eyes wide enough we can see the welcoming ceremony.  The gospel is presented and responded to.  The people who have heard are so grateful that they greet the messenger not only with open arms and open hearts, but with open homes, and water to bathe the feet of the one who has blessed them.

            The wonderful news is that we can all have beautiful feet.  How can we refuse God’s call to spread the gospel when such a welcome awaits us?