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Posts Tagged ‘Acts of the Apostles’

In the daily lectionary at this time in August is the continuing lection of the Apostle Paul’s arrest, trial and then sent as prisoner on board a ship, bound for Rome, for another trial, this time as a Roman citizen.  As many of you know, the voyage ended in storm and shipwreck in the last chapters of Acts of the Apostles.  An aside:  one of those perennial questions is, if you were a billionaire (cost of living means no longer imagining to be a millionaire!), what would you want?  I would invest in Netflix style multi episode series, such as filming the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the space trilogy by C. S. Lewis…and Acts, as it is in the Bible, and the last chapters are the obvious climax.  If you have not read the last chapters of Acts in sometime, I encourage you to do so.

In today’s episode, Acts 27, Paul is on board, with 276 passengers, and the ship hits a “northeaster” (27: 14), a “tempestuous wind” (a “nor’easter still is!) and they could not tack into the wind, but were blown by it along the coast of the island of Cauda.  They had to jettison ship gear to lighten the load and ride the waves.

18 Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. 19 And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Paul is visited by an angel who tells him none of the ship’s manifest will be lost, but the ship will be wrecked.  This goes on for fourteen days and today these verses stood out:

33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength,[f] for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.”35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.

In the middle of the storm Paul broke the bread giving thanks to God as the Apostle cared for them. In John’s Gospel, after the feeding of the 5,000, John reports, after Jesus comes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee:

23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.

In the middle of the deserted place, the Evangelist wants to tell us again:  “…the Lord had given thanks”.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Apostle Paul tells us, “In the night in which He was betrayed, He took bread and when He had given thanks…”

In the midst of storm, desert and betrayal, Jesus and His people give thanks to the Lord for His gifts to them, their “daily bread”.  Maybe a bigger part of the mighty deeds in the Bible is that people give thanks to the Lord in the midst of situations that they know they are at the end of all things.  They know again Who is the Lord Who gives all.  In the midst of storm, desert and betrayal, giving thanks not only for what we have, but Who has us.  This is Christian courage and encouragement.  I am not sufficient for this things on my own, we in Christ are and so the Apostle Paul, “ in the presence of all he broke…” the bread.  This seems to have made quite an impression on the centurion, Julius (vs. 1).  After all:

The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. 

Again the Apostle, 1 Thessalonians:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 

And once more, Philippians 4:

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The Apostle learned Christ, in the midst of a storm, and so many other times.  We have a whole bunch of learning left to us! 

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The New Testament Reading for this Day in the Daily Lectionary: The Parable of the Ten Minas

11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”

Commentary:  The parable is prompted by the expectation that the kingdom of God would appear right then and there.  Our Lord taught this parable in between inviting Himself to Zacchaeus’ home and the Triumphal Entry.  In the former He is accused of eating with sinners.  In the latter He will die for sinners, atoning for their sins.  In the former, He is the King at the table of a sinner, in the latter, He enters as King in lowly pomp to die.  Verse 11 is clear that the crowds supposed that the glorious Kingdom was about to appear. This parable in the Lord’s response.  In the parable Jesus is the nobleman who “…went into a far country”.  The “far country” put me in mind of the famous soliloquy by Hamlet who is contemplating suicide and so death and wonders,

who would burdens bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will

Hamlet would rather bear the burdens of this life than to go to that “undiscover’d country”, from which “no traveler returns”.  Jesus from chapter 9 has been on the journey to Jerusalem for one purpose: to go into that “undiscover’d country”, not bearing His burdens, for He has no sin and so no death, but ours, to the grave.  He has returned.  And gist of the parable is that He will return again, this time from heaven, to give an accounting of what we did with His minas.  What do  the “minas”, these silver coins, signify?   The servants in the parable are clear, “…your  mina has made ten minas more…”.  Note:  it was not the servant that increased the mina, but the mina did, that is, the Lord’s utter gift of Word and Sacrament, His riches, that is, the “unsearchable riches”(Ephesians 3:8) of His grace for burdened sinners.   His grace is not to be hidden away (verse 20).  His light is not to be hidden away (St. Matthew 5:16). Those who mock and despise the nobleman, the only Noble Man ever to walk upon the earth, and His grace,  it would have been better for Sodom, Tyre and Sidon than those who reject His disciples bearing the minas of His grace! (Luke 10:12;Luke 10:  14).

Even at the Ascension, the disciples are still wondering about an eternal kingdom out of this world of sin and death (Acts 1: 6-8) .  It won’t happen, and such ‘eternal kingdoms’ have been tried again and again.  The Lord will return and in the meantime, people need to hear of so great a salvation of the Lord who died and rose, a kingdom like no other on earth!  He rules not to end life but to give His.  His  rule appears most unexpectedly: by His forgiveness as He is risen and ascended.

The riches of His grace, His Atonement, His paradise will be enlivened with the fire of the Holy Spirit.   

O God, Who vast pleased to send on Thy disciples the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in the burning fire of Thy love, grant to Thy people to be fervent in the unity of faith; that evermore abiding in Thee, they may be found both steadfast in faith and active in work ; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Pastor Joshua Scheer in his article, “Who Are the Preachers in Your Life?”,  on Brothers of John the Steadfast asked these three interesting questions at the end of his piece:

“Who preaches to you most of the time?  What is being preached?

Who preaches to your children most of the time?  What is being preached?

What can be done to out-preach the preachers of the different gospel of this world?

The answers are in the Scriptures, especially the first lesson and especially the Epistle reading for the 6th Sunday of Easter (Year A):  Acts 17:16–31 and 1 Peter 3:13–22. 

 In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul is by himself in Athens.  Athens was one of the great cities of culture and philosophy that has influenced the Western world until our day and time. Athens was the home of Socrates and Plato and the adopted home of Aristotle, Zeno (found of Stoicism) and Epicurus. Luke tells us that Paul addressed Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.  The derivative  words “stoic” and “epicurean” are part and parcel of our vocabulary and so are the philosophies:  “stoic”, i.e., be tough;  “epicurean”, e.g. “eat, drink and be merry” are conflicting ways of life in our own day.  

We are told that Paul, upon seeing the city filled with idols, that, “his spirit was provoked within him” (verse 16). For a devout Jew (see Philippians 3:4-6),  to whom idolatry and the resultant immorality, were anathema (as it should be to all Christians as well), raised, no doubt, his rightful indignation.  Then we are told in the next verse that he “reasoned” with the Jews in the synagogue, God fearers and those in the agora,  i.e. the marketplace (vs. 17).  Further he addressed the various philosophers, and cultured onlookers,  in the place designated for such exchange of ideas, the Areopagus, literally, Mars Hill.  Notice that Paul’s provocation and indignation did not show.  He did not scream and holler,“Tear down these demonic altars”, though he knew they were demonic (see 1 Corinthians 10:20).  Instead, he reasoned with them and proclaimed the truth.  Paul’s brother Apostle, Peter, wrote to the churches in the Diaspora (1 Peter 1  ), this encouragement:   

 “…if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

 The Apostle Paul was forcefully asked to give a defense of the hope that in him (vs. 18-20).  He was prepared.  He gave his defense just as the Scripture says:  with gentleness and respect.  Paul did so but he did not water down God’s own truth.  He made pointed statements to his interlocutors that would escape our notice and for which Paul was mocked:  

  1. He proclaims God is the Creator of heaven and earth (vs. 23).  Many Greeks were so ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ that they thought matter was evil, created not by any god, but by a “demiurge”, that got “down and dirty” and so created ‘evil’ matter. Paul proclaiming God is the Creator of everything was probably an offense to his audience, but Paul proclaimed it clearly and so he was saying, the altars dedicated to gods and goddesses is nothing, they are gold and silver, things, therefore they were not gods.
  2.   The Greeks believed the gods and goddesses were dependant upon their service and devotion.  Paul turns this on end by citing an important Scriptural truth that the Lord does not need anything from mankind (see Psalm 50: 9-12) but He is the One who gives to us all in our need, our “life and breath and all things” ! (vs.  25)
  3.   “The Athenians might pride themselves on autochthonous[1]sprung from the soil of their native (Greece) (‘This belief reflects the historic fact that the Athenians were the only Greeks on the European mainland who had no tradition of their ancestors’ coming into Greece”), but this pride was ill founded.”[2] Paul proclaims that all of us are of one “nation” (some ancient texts, of one “blood”).  In other words we are all of the “hoi polloi”, no one is better nor worse!  Such a preaching can either puncture the pride or cause pride to rage.
  4.   Paul proclaimed the judgment of God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Apostle called them to repent (vss. 30-31), that is Law and Promise.  As the doctrine of the Creator and creation (1st article of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) was offensive, so would have been the bodily resurrection.  The audience believed in a spiritual, disembodied after life, but not the new creation. Also, that all mankind will be judged and is judged by God, deserving His temporal and eternal punishment probably did not set well with Paul’s audience.  Neither in our day and time: “no one can tell me what I should do!”

 Throughout the address, Paul is even and reasonable.  He also proclaims that God has not left Himself without a witness is His creation (cf. Romans 1:  ). He cites their poets and philosophers to substantiate his thesis.  He is not trying to win over them to his point of view, but to win them over to Jesus Christ.  He was mocked afterward (vs. 32) but some believed (vs. 34). The Word will accomplish the purpose the Lord puts into it (see Isaiah 55:10-12).

Paul the preacher out-preached the different gospels of the world by being prepared in the knowledge of Scripture.  This is the best way to give a defense of the hope that is in us:  armed with the Word of God (see  Ephesians 6:11ff ).   We are living in an internet Athens, that is just as pervasive, persuasive and perverse as was the great city of Athens in the first century.  The Athenians would not have listened to Paul if he tried to out shout them. Paul defended the Scriptures by not being defensive nor offensive.  Paul’s Address to the Areopagus still runs contrary in our agora of god and ideologies.  This list parallels the list above: 

  1. God is Creator, not evolution.  We are made, not self-made.  There is intelligent design that could not happen by chance.  The 1st Article  of the Creed is still offensive.
  2. God needs me to serve him, all my sacrifices. No, He does not, He gives to us all in our need. We think a worship service is something we offer to God, no!  God  who gives us His gifts of faith, hope and love, within His Service, His Word, that is, “For us and our salvation He came down from heaven” and “Broken and shed FOR YOU”.
  3. We Americans think we sprung up out of the soil of this land, a superior people.  ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf. Romans 3:22-24  ), therefore, the Lord has poured forth His salvation upon “all flesh” (cf. Luke 3:6).
  4. So many Christians have a judgment-less Gospel, that is preaching and teaching of the Gospel without the Law’s just diagnosis of our condition.  “Grandma is looking down on us from heaven” is common statement at funerals.  The Apostle’s Creed, based upon the Scripture, confesses the “resurrection of the body” to our likewise ‘spiritual’ afterlife.

 So many people think that between  Bible times and ‘our’ times there is a yawning abyss because so much has changed.  Yes, technology has changed but not fallen human nature. What was preached and reaching many folks in Athens is simply paraded day in our agora, television, radio and the internet. The second list is the current version of the first lesson preached nowadays. The many altars to our American idols is always an appeal to the self.  The doctrines of evolution, ego-centric philosophies, egoism are preached daily to make us happy.  This preaching of a gospel, which is not good news, oozes every TV commercial. And a lot of this narcissistic preaching is under the guise of Christianity, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, such as , “prosperity gospel” preaching. We may be happy but we are always looking over our shoulders and there is little joy. Or there is such anger directed at the filth in our society and country, and justifiably so, that discourse is difficult at best. The medium massages the mind to be insensible to truth and thinking things through. 

We cannot out yell the cultural preachers yet we can reason, as the Apostle did. We cannot out-tech the world and the agora either. We simply cannot compete nor should we!  The Gospel, that cannot be bought, the Gospel that is we have been bought for a price, not with silver or gold, by Jesus’ precious blood (1 Corinthians 7:23;1 Peter 1:17-19) , opens up the entire of Scripture that we might reason in the preaching and teaching of the Church. In a sound-bite world, the Lord’s perspective of eternity is ours in Christ.  Short-term fixes, that is, gimmicks and techniques won’t do.  As it is written, I would rather have five words of wisdom than a thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:19).  Paul was prepared as Peter counseled his churches to be prepared as we revere Christ as holy  in our hearts.

 When I was in college, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was in schism over Biblical interpretation.  I was  a liberal in Biblical interpretation.  I was visiting my extended family in Minnesota and with my Aunt Bertha, “Aunt Birdie”, I  had made fun of  the Missouri Synod.  My Aunt had been a Mennonite and became Lutheran (WELS) when she married. In one of the few times she was stern with me said, “Mark, I always believed in Christ but when I became a Lutheran I knew why.”  What preaches?  Solid Confessional catechesis, that is preaching and teaching of Law and Gospel, properly distinguished.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod knows about teaching and preaching.  The Scriptures’ compendium is the Small and Large Catechisms.  Catechesis cannot be done short term, but only long term: it is learning for Life.  Fancying up worship services or making them more ‘palpable’ won’t do either.  We are just spinning our wheels. The small still voice of the Lord in His Word is greater than the thunder and lightening of our technological world. We need only to be still and be stilled (see Exodus 14:14,Psalm 46:10,Psalm 131:2) for that is the beginning of learning. The Lord will be heard.

     “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven                                      and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55)

 [1] autochthonous: adjective (of an inhabitant of a place) indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists.

 

[2] The Book of Acts, commentary by F. F. Bruce, pages 357-358 (first published 1954)

 

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Aquila and his wife, Priscilla (Prisca), Jewish contemporaries of St. Paul, traveled widely. Because of persecution in Rome, they went to Corinth where they met the apostle Paul, who joined them in their trade of tent-making, as the Apostle was likewise trained in that trade:

Acts 18:  1After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tent makers by trade. 4And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Please note that the Roman persecution and exile of the Jews was the historical cause by which Paul met this faithful couple in the Lord. The three of them met in Corinth where the Apostle evangelized.  The author of Acts, Luke, tells us that the three of them met because of their vocation, “tent makers by trade” (This means they were leather workers and as Paul was a trained Pharisee, it was customary for a Pharisee to have a trade).   Was it a historical accident that Paul met this Christian husband and wife?  We do not know in this concrete event in the Church’s history but we do know that the Lord is,

“…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1)

The Lord brings about His plan in ways that to the human eye are hidden but He is working to bring us His salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Later Luke tells us in his history of the early Church, Acts, that Silas and Timothy came to Corinth,  and so the Church was there in Corinth:  Apostle Paul,  Aquilla and Priscilla, Silas and Timothy.  There were not a “team”as this was not a sport’s game.  Our Lord promised where 2 or 3 are gathered in His Name, so He is there.  It was not 5 of them in Corinth but also the Lord, the Temple of His Body to be revealed in the preaching and teaching of His Word, as the Apostle evangelized first  in the Corinthian synagogue.   Our Lord sent out the disciples two by two to preach and heal. Further, the Apostle Paul mentions Apollos eight times in 1 Corinthians.  Paul wrote the Corinthians that their following of human leaders, however ‘charismatic’, is fleshly.  Paul and Apollos worked in concert in the ministry of the Gospel:  

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3)

Dr. Lockwood in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (Concordia Publishing House) points out:  “…Apollos and Paul did not work independently of each other;  they formed a harmonious unit, one in purpose, one in fellowship      (Gal. 2: 9).”   In the Scriptures, evangelism is not a solo activity, but the mission of the Church in concert under her Lord (see 1 Corinthians 12: 1-26).  

The Apostle supported himself by making tents so he would not be a burden on the congregations he was called to serve (cf. 1 Corinthians 9: 18), though, he was by no means against preachers receiving a salary so that their time could be fully devoted to freely preach and teach the word (cf. 1 Corinthians 9: 1-8). In turn, Aquila and Priscilla  joined Paul in his mission of proclaiming the Gospel. The couple later traveled with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus:

Acts 18: 18: After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila

Priscilla and Aquila established a home in Ephesus that served as hospitality headquarters for new converts to Christianity. Paul left them there as he went to  Caesarea, then Galatia and Phyrgia.  It was good that Priscilla and Aquila stayed in  Ephesus because of a visitor:

Acts 18: 24Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.

This faithful couple taught the talented and highly educated Apollos regarding Baptism according to Christ’s command and promise.  The Christians in Corinth were so fleshly proud that many of them boasted they followed Apollos  and others(see 1 Corinthians 1:11-13), whereas   Apollos, with all his erudition, was obviously humble and had an ear as one being taught (see Isaiah 50:4). It is also important to note that the clear implication in the verses above that,  “the way of God”  to us all  is Baptism:  “…though he knew only the baptism of John”, which was  for repentance whereas Baptism commanded by Christ Jesus is for forgiveness, until He comes again (see St. Matthew 28:  18-20).  Priscilla and Aquila were in business.  Business is a vocation in this world for people to serve their neighbor, but this is also a clear narrative demonstrating that in your daily vocation you may so teach the “…way of God” to those who want to know.  Priscilla and Aquila knew their catechism.

Then later, Apollos:

…wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.(Acts 18)

Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos are all remembered and honored for their great missionary zeal in the unity, the concord, of the Church.  No matter the greatness nor humility of the talent, we all need to be catechized and preached Christ and Him crucified, “…  showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.”  This day is especially good to remember to always pray for all businessmen, tradesmen, day-laborers and to  pray for the Church’s mission and her missionaries in daily life that the Lord’s salvation be brought to many a listening,“poor in spirit”, ear and heart.

Let us pray…

Triune God, whose very Name is holy, teach us to be faithful hearers and learners of Your Word , fervent in the Spirit as Apollos was, that we may teach it correctly against those who have been led astray into false and error and that we might follow the example of Aquila and Priscilla for the good the Church You established here and entrusted into our humble care;  for You, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen.

 

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“Precious in the sign of the LORD is the death of His saints”-Psalm 116: 15

The Appointed Lessons:  2 Chronicles 24: 17-22;  Psalm 119:  137-144;  Acts 6: 8-7:2a, 51-60;  St. Matthew 23: 34-39

Stephen was one of the first 7 deacons chosen by the Holy Spirit in the prayer of the Church to wait on tables for the widows in the first Church so that the Apostles could devote their ministry to the Word. Stephen’s record is in Acts 6: 1 through 8: 3.  But the deacons also preached the Word:  they fed the people bread for their bodies and the Bread of life for their souls.  Stephen knew the Bible’s history of Israel and probably pointed out to a synagogue that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets and nothing we can do can save us: it is by His crucifixion and resurrection we are forgiven through faith alone. So the synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6: 7) were furious at him and accused him: “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.

The freedmen, or literally, the liberated ones, were possibly descendants of manumitted slaves.  So maybe for them to hear that they will be freed freely in Jesus Christ would have been galling and going against the ‘freedom’ they had sought in their own synagogue. But here was a man full of the Holy Spirit who was in love with the One born yesterday Who alone can free, what no law could free.  We could sing today, On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…Himself:  Jesus Christ. In fact it is recorded that Stephen’s face shined like an angel’s (6: 15).  “Angel” means “messenger”.  Stephen was a messenger of the message of glad tidings of Jesus Christ.

When Stephen was brought in for investigation he preached the history of Israel as the prologue.  “Prologue” is literally, “before the word” as here  the Word (in Greek “logos”, as in John 1: 1-14 ) before the Word became flesh.  St. Stephen preached truthfully the Bible  and the way the Lord faithfully in His mercy showed Israel His path and they rejected it again and again.  And the greatest of these rejections was Jesus: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” It was the truth and the truth hurts, and it enraged them and they stoned Stephen to death. His last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  The same words as Jesus spoke from the Cross.  Now, even the official church eliminates those who preach and teach the Word of God, regarding marriage, abortion,the Law of God,  not by stoning anyone to death, but by turning their hearts to stone and asking like Satan did in Genesis 3:  “Did God say…?”

We spend much energy decrying commercializing of the season up until the 25th, but we forget about the days following beginning today:  December 26th.  This is from ancient usage the day to remember Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  The day after Christmas is usually noted in our time as the time to return to the malls and return the gifts we do not like, or do not fit.   On December 27th, the Church remembers and gives thanks for St.John,Apostle and Evangelist.  He wrote the 4th Gospel and was the only one of the 4 Evangelists who was not killed but according to tradition lived to great old age.  Then on the 28th, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children under the age of two that Kind Herod murdered in order to kill a rival to his throne who was born on December 25th. Remembering that the word “martyr” literally means witness:  

Stephen was a martyr in will and deed;  

John in will but not deed

and the Innocents in deed but not in will.  

Yet all were witnesses  in some way to Jesus Christ and He protected them all:  Stephen, John and the children of Bethlehem. These first days of the 12 days of Christmas receive a different understanding in the truth of the Scriptures, of God’s Word and it is sobering and enlightening. Our priorities are awry, to say the least as we still “shop till we drop”. We speak much about love and love has gone awry.  Here is Stephen in the grips of “love’s pure light” in serving his neighbors and in that service preaching the truth of His Word. We do not even want to face social discomfort in speaking of Jesus.  We need this martyr, his witness in these dark days in order to say no to the world and our yes to Christ as all the promises of God find their yes in Him ( 2 Corinthians 1:20), for the increase of His Church.  It might cause rage, and for many it won’t be rage, but the peace which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Heavenly Father, in the midst of our sufferings for the sake of Christ grant us grace to follow the example of the first martyr, Stephen, that we also may look to the One who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong;  through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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Acts 8: 26- 39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place.And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank You for Your servant Philip the Deacon, whom You called to proclaim the Gospel to the peoples of Samaria and Ethiopia. Raise up in this and every land heralds and evangelists of Your kingdom, that your Church may make known the immeasurable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

About Philip the Deacon:  Philip, also called the evangelist (Acts 21:8), was one of the seven men appointed to assist in the work of the twelve apostles and of the rapidly growing early Church by overseeing the distribution of food to the poor (Acts 6:1-6). Following the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip proclaimed the Gospel in Samaria and led Simon the sorcerer to become a believer in Christ (Acts 8:4-13). He was also instrumental in bringing about the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), through whom Philip became indirectly responsible for bringing the Good News of Jesus to the people on the continent of Africa. In the town of Caesarea, he was host for several days to the apostle Paul, who stopped there on his last journey to Jerusalem (Acts 21:8-15). (From The Treasury of Daily Prayer, cph.org)

 

Biblical Reflection Points on Philip in Acts 8: 26-40 (see caption above):

  1. Philip, like Stephen, was called to be a Deacon to serve the widows and like Stephen also preached and served the Gospel.  Philip administered the measurable riches of man for the widows and the poor and also the “immeasurable riches” of Jesus Christ and both are crucial stewardship.
  2. There are two Biblical Greek words for time: kairos and chronos.  The latter is measurable time.  The former is immeasurable time, the time of fulfillment, the eternal moment of God’s “today”.  Philip preached to the Ethiopian Eunuch but Philip did not button-hole the court official so he could give his “witness”.  It was the kairos, God’s time.  True preaching of the Word is according to God’s time. He knows best.
  3. The court official is reading Isaiah 53, prophesied some 500 years before Christ.  The chapter is almost a biography of His Passion.  I read a conservative rabbi’s understanding of Isaiah 53.  Basically, it made no Scriptural sense to him, because a veil was over his heart and eyes.  It won’t be removed  until the Gospel is preached and he so somes to faith in Christ Jesus.  It was removed for the eunuch. Isaiah 53 is preaching Christ and Him crucified.
  4.  Some people wrongly think that the Old Testament=Law and New Testament=Gospel.  This lesson, among thousands of passages, disproves those false equations!
  5. The Ethiopian did not understand the Scripture.  This is a perfect illustration of Romans 10:   14How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”                                                         Once again:  this was the right time.
  6. Please note the sequence:  Word, then Sacrament, specifically the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The court official asks what is to prevent Baptism. Indeed!  The Greek verb for “prevent” is the same one Jesus used when the disciples rebuked the parents from bringing their children to Him for a blessing, when the Lord said, Do not prevent them from coming to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of heaven.  This high court official of Queen Candace received the kingdom, freely given, in Baptism as a child.  Indeed, all baptisms are baptisms of children and infants, even for an adult. The man went away “rejoicing”. This old song illustrates the eunuch’s rejoicing:   “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to Him belong, they are weak and He is strong. Yes!  Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes!  Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.

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