Thursday, October 31, 2013


Acts 28:23-31

"Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen." —Acts 28:28


28:28 After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. 24Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,

26 ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 27For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.'

28Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen." 30He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.


Imagine Paul's anticipation as he departed from Malta on the last leg of his journey. Although an imperial appearance was the premise for the journey, Paul's visit would allow him to pursue another phase of his missionary program. He would meet with the Jewish community there from whom he hoped to add more converts.

The presence of Christianized Jews in Rome means that other missionaries had some successes there. You may recall reading about Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18. They probably left Rome after Emperor Claudius ordered all Jews to leave around 49 A.D. At the end of Claudius's ban about six years later, many returned to Rome. Based on Paul's greetings to Priscilla and Aquila in Rom. 16:3, we have reason to believe that they may have been in the throng of enthusiastic believers who hurried to welcome Paul.

In v. 16, the "we" narration of Acts ends at the conclusion of the final travel story. This passage records Paul's attempts to convince the Roman Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of all their hopes. Like Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, Paul uses the Scriptures, from Moses to the Prophets, as his teaching points (see Luke 24:27). Like the disciples, who mixed joy with disbelief when Jesus appeared to them in Luke 24:36-41, some of the Roman Jews remain unconvinced.

The inclusion of Isa. 9:6-10 is a bit curious. One might read it as Paul's frustration that his people are rejecting the complete salvation that Jesus offers. Its inclusion might be interpreted as affirmation of God's ongoing work with the wayward people of Israel and all humankind. Because some Jews rejected Paul was no cause for him to give up. Paul was no quitter, as the rest of the passage clearly indicates.

Paul preached the realm of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. He used Scripture to draw pictures of God's realm. He wanted to nurture a beloved community of .believers who lived out the lessons Jesus taught. In today's Scripture, we see glimpses of some of these lessons in action. Paul welcomes all who come to him, who provide for his needs and share generously with others. He spent long hours in discussions with other religious leaders, using familiar texts to underscore his points. He pledged his allegiance to God's rule, not to the emperor, while establishing himself as one of God's chosen people. Speaking to the power of the gospel, Paul refused to let the Jews retain exclusive rights to their status as chosen people. Paul affirmed that the gospel is freely given to all who would hear it and believe, Gentile or Jew alike.


Paul taught and preached boldly and without hindrance. Along with Peter, Stephen, and many others, thousands of converts began to be followers of the Way of Jesus. Yet many others remained unconvinced. It was no doubt discouraging for the apostles, as it is for contemporary Christians who wish to share the joy of our salvation with others.

The extravagant promises of salvation continue to hold appeal for the underserved and underprivileged today. There are many who are hopeless enough to see the radical good news as life giving. For those of us who live more comfortable lives, the prospect of sharing all things (see Acts 4) may hold little attraction. We have grown used to a "What's yours is yours, and what's mine is mine" way of living. Is it so surprising, then, that the fastest growing bodies of Christ in the world are in the Southern Hemisphere, Asia, and Africa? In parts of the world where economic, social, and political justice is but a dream, Christianity offers a hope unlike anything offered by an earthly ruler or power structure.


It is tempting to simplify the world into black and white when shades of gray predominate. Acts does not limit the world to two camps, children of light and children of darkness. It includes the people of Malta, who hosted Paul but did not convert to follow the Way and others who did not heed Paul's call to follow Christ. God seems to have been working God's purposes out even through nonbelievers. Outsiders were brought into the fold, however. They included the Ethiopian eunuch of questionable sexual identity; Cornelius, the Roman citizen; and many in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and elsewhere who did not growing up hearing about Moses and the prophets at their parents' knees. The audience Luke intended to address was a persecuted minority fighting for its life. Acts is not a description of a self-satisfied, secure band of believers. Instead it tells the story of dispersed groups of believers who remain under threat and are at risk of losing hope. Perhaps one of the lessons today's church can take from a fresh reading of this amazing book is its witness to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the world.

Perhaps another lesson we might discern is the continued existence of dissent and disagreement among people of faith. Paul and his colleagues remain in conversation with those who believe differently or do not believe at all. Differences in communities of faith existed in each community in which Paul traveled, as his letters to Rome, Corinth, and Galatia attest. Yet they remained part of the wider church. They were part of a fellowship grounded in the realm of God, the reign of Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We belong to denominations often at odds about what constitutes essential matters of faith and practice. We live among other Christians who do not believe or do as we do. As citizens of an increasingly global world, we interact with people who follow no god or other gods, or who believe differently in the same God. As we do so, we might acknowledge the existence of disagreement, dissent, and unbelief. Instead of wringing our hands over its existence, perhaps we should give thanks that it provides us ongoing ways to share the good news with all whom we meet, in ways that work for our audiences and in our time.


How many other Christian houses of worship exist in your community? What non-Christian traditions are represented? Have you engaged in intentional interfaith dialogue with others? Why or why not?

What parts of this study of Acts have been most helpful to you? Which remain problematic?

What teachings of Jesus do you most need to hear on a regular basis in order to remain a faithful witness to the good news?


Ever-living, ever-teaching God, we have much to learn in order to be faithful followers of Christ. Open our hearts and heads, and use our hands and feet to show what good news looks like in everyday and extraordinary ways. Use the words of our mouths—spoken and written—to tell others the stories of Paul and Priscilla, of Martha and Mary, of Ruth and Noah, and of your Son, Jesus, and all the disciples and apostles who follow him throughout the ages. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Acts 28:1-10

Paul visited [Publius's father] and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. —Acts 28:8


28:1 "After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta.

2The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 3Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, "This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live." 5He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. 9After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

There is a saying that goes: "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” This passage is a remarkable example of Paul's preaching the gospel without words. There are no recorded speeches by Paul—a rare occurrence! Luke does not mention the God of Israel, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. All we know is that Paul and his companions are shipwrecked on an island with non-Greek-speaking people. Luke refers to them as "natives," meaning "barbarians" or "aliens." The way they receive Paul and his companions is far from barbaric; Luke characterizes it as "unusual kindness."


Paul's dedication as a servant of God is obvious after his heroic, faithful leadership through the storm. Luke underscores the scope of Paul's divine commission in this passage. As the bedraggled bunch wades ashore, it is apparent to their rescuers that the group includes prisoners and captors. The prevailing wisdom of the time taught that bad things happened to bad people. The expectation was that bad deeds were greeted by swift, sure, divine retribution and punishment. Both Christian and non-Christian alike shared this wisdom. When a viper bites Paul, his captors fully expect him to die. It would serve him right!

Imagine their surprise when this does not happen. Much as an athlete might shake off a minor injury, Paul shakes off the snake and shakes up his rescuers—and probably his captors as well. Their conventions of common wisdom aren't holding up—perhaps Paul is a god, after all! The Maltese discern that Paul is indeed blessed. Not even the Greek goddess Justice was able to serve a death sentence via a viper.

Paul is God's faithful servant through all circumstances. In these unusual stories, Luke seems to be inviting us to notice how all of creation—the sea, the storms, and the snake—succumb to serve God's purposes. Stories featuring creation serving God's purposes, or humans being "used" by God—whether willing to be used or not—are characteristics of the book of Acts. This passage brings into the mix the question about God's working in, through, and around nonbelievers. This can be a thorny question for some of us.

"Take the Name of Jesus with You," a hymn written in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, extols the virtues and benefits of going everywhere with the name of Jesus on our lips. During the missionary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christians envisioned themselves taking God to the heathen of the world. The theology of mission has been reformed, fortunately. Most of us realize that God is already present at work in the world. A broad reading of Scripture affirms this theology: John 13:16 (God so loved the world that God sent the Son) and Matt. 22:37-40 (the charge to love God, love neighbor, love self) are two such examples of this affirmation. Even Paul encountered non-Christians who seemed to embody the same kind of moral and ethical principles that Christians and Jews before them were charged to follow. If we put ourselves in the text with Luke and Paul, it's not hard to imagine God at work in Malta through what is known as general revelation, or God's self-disclosure in the created world.

"Don't be afraid of tomorrow," begins the old saying, "God is already there." But if God is already there, and God's plans are for our welfare and not for harm, why do hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics, and acts of violence rend the fabric of our existence? Why are we often left to weave together the tattered remnants into something usable once again?

It is the age-old question of God's justice and goodness in light of the suffering and evil that exists throughout creation. It is a huge question with no easy answers. In our passage, God protects Paul in order that he may continue to serve out his mission. Ditto Jonah, and David, and the disciples, doubters (Thomas), and deniers (Peter) among them. But what about Stephen, whom we saw stoned to death at the conclusion of Acts 7, and other legions of martyrs across the centuries? What about Martin Luther King Jr.?

The truth is that God is with us under the black clouds and in the recovery. That's what Paul experienced in Malta— God was already there. Paul experienced grace and compassion through the unusual kindness of others. While Paul was charged to bring the good news of salvation to the ends of the world, he discovered that amid violent storms and venomous snakes, and powerful, fearful politicians and religious leaders, God was already there. Maybe, just maybe, that's the life-saving message that Luke wants us to take away with us today.


Look up the lyrics to a couple of the earlier missionary hymns, such as "Take the Name of Jesus with You" (1870) and "Onward Christian Soldiers" (1864). These are often left out of contemporary hymnals. Compare their lyrics with other hymns that remain in many hymnals, such as "We Give Thee But Thine Own" (1858) or "Eternal God, Whose Power Upholds" (1929). Note the differences and similarities. Why do you think the latter two hymns are still included?

How would you answer these questions?

• Why did Luke include these ten verses in Acts 28?

• What do the miracles do for the story?

  Do miracles occur today?

How do you explain that a God who requires people of faith to take risks and perhaps suffer—even die—is really a just and loving God? How do you answer this question: "Why do you believe in a God who 'lets' suffering, abuse, war, earthquakes, and divorces happen?


Dear God, you call us to be disciples of the Lord. May we in service to you act out the living Word. As stewards of the earth, may we give thanks to you. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Acts 27:1-2, 33-44

So it was that all were brought safely to land. —Acts 27:44



27: 1 When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy,  they transferred Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, named Julius. 2Embarking on a ship of Adramyttium that was about to set sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian, from Thessalonica—

33 Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, "Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. 34Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads."

35After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. 37(We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

39 In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. 40So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the topes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. 41But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. 42The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

Most of us crave security and the familiar. We like to sleep in our own beds and eat the same breakfast. We take the same route to work or church even when we have other options. Our adventures are planned via Google maps or GPS. Not much is left to chance.

We even like our journeys of faith to feel familiar. The idea of being a pilgrim following the call to discipleship across risky seas is less attractive these days. We seem more concerned with safeguarding tradition than following the Holy Spirit in ways that can inform and refresh tradition. Once upon a time, however, the idea of being a pilgrim or "wayfarer" on a quest for faith was the prevailing image. Yet here are signs that we are reclaiming this identity. Many communities of faith seek to integrate Word and deed in more outwardly focused relationships—think Haiti, post-Katrina/Gulf Coast, post-tornados of 2011 disaster-recovery teams. What the church of Jesus Christ would be like if we set off beyond a "safe haven" today? How might we share the gift of God's love, Christ's peace, and the Holy Spirit's comfort with others? What if we reclaimed the energy that compelled the original Christ followers to do just that?

Before going any further, read all of Acts 27. It's a great story with quite a cast of characters. Paul and his two friends, presumably fellow Christians; Julius and his crew; probably auxiliary Roman troops; and a divine messenger play prominent roles. Add a complicated travel itinerary, ancient seagoing vessel (no GPS for them!), and unpredictable weather. Mix in a prisoner/prophet who takes center stage as God's agent and the next scene in this Luke-Acts odyssey is ready to roll.

The Acts of the Apostles chronicles several sea voyages (9:30; 11:25-26; 13:4,12). This final one tops them all. Paul, a prisoner at the mercy of experienced sailors and soldiers, ends up saving the day. He assures everyone—crew and reader alike—that God's salvation and providential care are present even in the midst of dire circumstances.

As in the previous travel sections (Paul's arrival in Jerusalem and his travels in Caesarea and Jerusalem), the author inserts himself into the story. This first-person plural invites everyone to join the adventure as "we put to sea" (27:3). It pulls us into the story and engages our imaginations. It is difficult to be detached when we are part of the story.

Sea travel was a risky venture for small, mostly open ships. Paul was not alone. Besides a full complement of jailers, friends who cared for his needs accompanied him. Faced with the forces of God's creation (see vs. 15-19), the soldiers and sailors could not take matters into their own hands and avert disaster. Paul, girded by the strength of his faith in God's promises, was emboldened by a divine messenger (v. 23). He inspired the crew to see the voyage through safely, albeit roughly, to land. Just as in Joseph's story (Gen. 50), what may have been intended for harm actually was used for God's purposes. Like the unmilled grain dumped overboard, Paul's safe landing enabled him to continue to sow seeds of the Christian way of life. In this way, new communities of faith took root among the Jews and Gentiles in Rome and in the centuries to follow.

Paul demonstrated a set of survival skills that twenty-first-century Christians could copy. He took risks for the sake of the gospel, so intent on the good news that he gave little thought for his welfare. The risks of jail and imprisonment paled in the face of this ferocious storm. His tool kit included an anchor that kept him tethered securely to God, the source of his hope.

His tool kit included prayer, a spiritual survival skill that anyone can call on. We are often quick to make prayer a one-way conversation—from our hearts and lips to God's ears. Discernment—the practice of listening for the presence and will of God—means that we have to pay attention and listen.  Paul probably practiced this discernment on the voyage. He was attuned to the counsel of the angel of the Lord, and that got the crew's attention. Paul, rarely at a loss for words, used well-chosen, well-timed words to inspire and direct his companions.

His words were backed up with action and attention to practical matters. He thought about timing, navigation, human resources, and fuel for the journey. He saw to it that the men remembered to eat, and he offered a meal that reminds us of the Lord's Supper. Perhaps the two Christian companions made the connection between the holy suppers and the promise of everlasting survival with this meal's offering of physical survival. As God's witness, Paul fed both bodies and spirits that day.

The final twist in the voyage comes at the end. Paul and the other prisoners walk away from the wreckage and back into captivity. The soldiers expected an order to murder their prisoners to prevent their escape after the shipwreck. Imagine their surprise when Julius spared them. His compassion for Paul is not fully explained in the text. We might imagine that Julius was grateful for Paul's courageous guidance and wanted to honor him in return. He might have been wondering about Jesus and wanted to learn more about him. We don't know. But we can see that while God may not intend for hardships to occur, God is with us in the midst of them and afterward. God works through others in the power of the Holy Spirit in surprising ways.

God calls us into some surprising places as we make our way as "pilgrims in this barren land." We may have a clear sense of where we are going and who is going with us, but sometimes we are called to step out into uncharted waters with unlikely traveling companions. We may be called into positions of leadership when we least expect it. What are some of the places God has called you to in the past or is calling you to in the future? What might you do to hone your survival skills and prepare for the mission God has in mind for you?


What hymns, spirituals, and contemporary songs are on your journey-of-faith playlist?

How do the rituals and practices of faith fuel you for your faith journey? How do they help you know what to do, and when?

Do you believe the promise of Jer. 29:77-74—that God has plans for our welfare, not for harm, and fora hopeful future? Does this extend to all people, like the soldiers and sailors with Paul, or only to those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior?


Guide us, great Jehovah, as we undertake pilgrimages through life. Whether in the midst of calm or crisis, we will call on you as we navigate our way. When we need to speak up and assure others, give us wisdom, confidence, and the strength to do so. When we need to heed the wisdom of another, grant us humility to follow gracefully. In all that we do, may our words and actions offer living witness to you, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Acts 26:19-32

Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth."

—Acts 26:25


26:19 "After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. 21For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: 23that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles."

24 While he was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, "You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!" 25But Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. 26Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe." 28Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" 29Paul replied, "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains."

30 Then the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those who had been seated with them; 31and as they were leaving, they said to one another, "This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment." 32Agrippa said to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor."


Paul, who as a Roman citizen has the right to appeal all the way to the emperor, has an advantage that Jesus, a lowly Palestinian Jew, lacked. He has the right to a trial in the highest courts. By claiming the rights of a Roman citizen to appeal to the Emperor Nero, Paul assures that he will have a chance to take his stand to the heart of the Roman Empire.  Festus, a Roman government official,  is faced with a major dilemma: many are clamoring for Paul's death, and Festus can't build a case against him. By inviting King Agrippa II to hear Paul, he hopes that this representative of the emperor can uncover some evidence he can use. Agrippa came from a long line of officials who crossed paths with Jesus and his followers. He was the great-grandson of Herod the Great (see Matt. 2; Herod was the infamous murderer of boys under age two) and grandnephew of Herod Antipas (in Luke 23 this Herod questions Jesus; Mark 6 reports that he ordered the beheading of John the Baptizer and took part in Jesus' trial). King Agrippa was also the son of Herod Agrippa I (in Acts 12, he martyred James and vigorously persecuted early Christians). Agrippa II was also a Jew and perhaps could provide unique insights into Paul's defense that would soon unfold.

Paul knows his audience; he spins his story to his advantage. He aligns himself with Rome while claiming his association with Jerusalem and Jewish tradition and with followers of the new Way of Jesus. Paul is clear that his appointment to serve and to testify compels him to proclaim that Jesus is the promised, resurrected Messiah. He drives home a two-part message: that Jesus is the one who suffered and who first rose from the dead and the one who will bring light to Jew and Gentile alike.

Paul stands before powerful people, empowered by his commission to testify and serve the risen Christ. He is intent on inviting his hearers to make these beliefs their own. To establish credibility before his audience, he draws on his position as a member of the Jewish elite and a Roman citizen. The strength of his personal, subjective testimony provides a powerful dimension to his public testimony. Those who would judge him are more than frustrated by it. They resist his evangelism but acknowledge that he has done nothing worthy of imprisonment or death. As the scene ends, it is as if Agrippa II and Festus are worried that Paul's appeal—and their role in it—will be a royal waste of time.

As a Pharisee, Paul was known to have been a formidable enemy of Christians. His call to serve and to testify, however, led to the end of his "kicking against the goads." A goad was a sharply pointed pole used to prod animals such as oxen into doing their work; the figure of speech was common in Greek literature, referring to the futility of pushing against a powerful force. Paul could not resist the power of Christ and the promise of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation.

Enlightened against the powers of darkness, Paul obeyed this call for the rest of his life. His journey of faith took him across the known world, into prisons and into the midst of people who knew of other gods but not the God of Israel. He found ways to raise funds, to encourage fledgling communities of faith, and to spread the teachings of Christ.


Theologians generally acknowledge three reasons that the church finds itself called to make public statements of faith or to write confessions or creeds. The conditions for a status confessionis are times of external threat, internal dissent, or inspiration to speak a new word, perhaps what Paul would call a "sober truth." Throughout the church's history, people of faith have recorded faith statements, often referred to as creeds and confessions, testifying to their beliefs at a given point in time. This is not a dead tradition, as new statements continue to be written in faith communities across the globe. Many new-member or confirmation classes include an exercise in creating a personal faith statement as a snapshot of one's beliefs at that particular age or stage of faith.

Consider Paul's words in Acts 27 as his confession. It seems that he is compelled to position himself squarely within the Roman Empire (state) and as a Jew who follows Jesus (religious authority). Paul affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus and leaves no doubt that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Paul is called to share this news with others and believes that the promise of salvation and eternal life are worth risking his life before the powers of the state, the prevailing Greco-Roman gods, and Jewish tradition.


How has your faith changed over time? Do you have a sense of call to a particular ministry or kind of service? Reflect on where you feel most fulfilled and challenged in your faith walk.

What "goads" do you face in seeking to share the good news of Christ and the promises of the resurrection with others?

Who are some of your mentors in the faith who serve as examples to you to find ways to "kick against the goads" and stand up for what you believe as a Christian?


God of all Life, may we be inspired by Paul's strength of purpose, clarity of call, and assurance that his witness was worth the cost. May we find ways to invite others to join us in this journey of faith, demonstrating the good news in word and deed, in all those places our faith will take us.  Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013



Acts 8:26-39

The eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" —Acts 8:36

8:26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside 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 silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

34The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Note: Acts 8:37 is not in the NRSV. Most scholars believe it to be a later insertion, appearing in manuscripts in the 6th century A.D.


We tend to glamorize early Christians. We think of them as having pure motivations. Since they're so near to Jesus in time, we think we need to "get back" to their good old days. Except the early Christians didn't experience the "good old days" we imagine they did. They struggled with distances and barriers just as we do now.

There are no barriers in the family of faith. Peter had struggles with this as he matured in his ministry, just as we think we're inclusive until different sorts of people show up and reveal that there is, in fact, a wall between them and us. When we say, "They're different than us," we're also saying "They're separate from us," or "They don't belong."

This passage asserts that this assessment is irrelevant. The point is not that we figure out who belongs and who doesn't but that we attend to God's leading in our own lives. Philip attends to God's leading: he goes to Samaria and preaches; he listens to an angel who tells him to follow "a wilderness road"; he follows the Spirit's direction to join a chariot; he follows the Spirit to the Ethiopian who desires baptism; and he is whisked away by the Spirit and starts proclaiming the gospel again, right where he lands.

Philip discerns and obeys at the same time: it's an angel of the Lord and the Spirit of God. If these visitors were not of God, Philip would not have followed them. Having discerned that they are, he obeys.

The Ethiopian does the same thing: he discerns and obeys. This man had traveled great distances to worship the God of a people who excluded him from the covenant of faith. Who does that besides a person who is convinced that the Lord God is One? He was excluded, but he sought this God nonetheless and discerned when the right teacher came to him. Hearing the proclamation of the gospel, he obeyed the call of Christ and sought baptism, understanding with joy that the Lord of the people that excluded him in fact included him.

It's dramatic in that an angel of the Lord speaks to Philip, even though Philip seems to take it as though it's nothing unusual. When Philip follows the Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian, he plows through boundaries that should have shocked him. Perhaps they did. It's not only startling that Philip goes to someone excluded from the people of God (one not allowed to offer a sacrifice at the temple, like everyone else); it's that he also approaches a wealthy, prominent, educated man who is reading and asks him if he understands what he is reading. We usually note the barrier that excludes the Ethiopian. We rarely notice that Philip crossed a barrier of social status.

Actually, both men ignored what they understood about their religious practice or their social roles and simply listened to the same Spirit of God that was active in them both, dissolving barriers. It is as if the barriers never existed.


Have you noticed that no introduction is needed when Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch? Both men are rooted in devotion to God. Both pursue the truth of God's salvation. There's no exchange of names and no recital of Philip's credentials. Philip walks to the chariot and with no lead-in asks if the Ethiopian understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian reveals no surprise. Scripture was important to both of them; they both sought the word of the living God with all their hearts. The niceties of social convention were ignored for the sake of a conversation about the living God.

This common bond makes their relationship an intimate one. Philip taught and the Ethiopian learned about the vital gift of salvation. The Spirit of the Lord created this intimacy between the two; the Spirit led the two men to each other. Then the two men became brothers in Christ through baptism

We often unknowingly allow barriers to form between us and others. There are people we don't sit with and people whom we actively exclude for one reason or another. Maybe after reading this story, we can look at things a bit differently and consider that the Spirit has brought us to one another. That might help us to discover our intimacy with those who are different from us, an intimacy grounded in the grace of Christ that binds us all. Like Philip and the Ethiopian, we might very well become allies instead of aliens.


We find it difficult to comprehend that God would exclude anyone from covenant because of life circumstances. The wealthiest are included along with the poorest, males with females, and anyone of any denomination. People might choose to reject covenant with God, but God invites us all.

Some commentators speculate that Philip may also have explained  Isa. 56. In this passage, God challenges the readers' assumptions about the covenant. In Isa. 56:3-7, God speaks and switches things up. Those who treat the covenant glibly, as though all they had to do was follow rules, do not count the covenant with God as prized. Yet in these verses God declares that the eunuch and the foreigner (the Ethiopian on the road!) are included in the covenant because they keep it, follow God's decrees, and keep the Sabbath, not desecrating it. In other words, those that keep covenant with God have covenant with God.

This would surely be reason for the Ethiopian's eagerness for baptism and rejoicing even though he saw Philip no more. In this particular passage from Isaiah (and remember the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah) those who think they are not Included in the people of God are told, "Yes you are! For you keep my covenant, heed my decrees, and do not desecrate my Sabbath." We know from the passage in Acts that this is what the eunuch did: he traveled far to worship at the temple where he wasn't accepted, which can only be a sign of deep devotion to the one true God.


With which people do we feel distance? What difference serves as a barrier?

How would you describe the relationship between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch?

Which things of your faith are dear to you? Why? Can you imagine worshiping God even if you were excluded from God's people?


God of peace, your gospel is dear to us: by the power of the Holy Spirit may we share it with those we encounter, no matter who they are. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


Acts 8:9-24

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money.

—Acts 8:18


8:9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously  practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10A11 of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, "This man is the power of God that is called Great." 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, 19saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness." 24Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me."


As Christians, as congregations, as denominations, and as Christ's one universal church, we do not depend on ourselves but on Jesus Christ our Lord. Christ's is the only authority that we are to seek and discern in the midst of our lives. We are not lords of others or ourselves. Our Lord, the one who authors our lives, is Lord over all that is and is none other than the triune God. All spiritual power is God's alone. Our power is in cooperation with the power of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot be holy apart from the Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit cannot be owned, parceled, hoarded, bought, or demanded.

As we follow the plot in this story, we see power at work; we see how people respond to this power both in service and in greed. Simon was powerful. People followed and "listened to him eagerly." As the story unfolds, Simon recognizes power greater than his own in the preaching of Philip, and so he follows him. Then there is an even greater power: the power of bestowing the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. When Peter chastises Simon, he draws a vital distinction: one cannot have the power of God. One simply serves it.



We human beings are certainly drawn to power. We enjoy watching powerful athletes; we respect people who are able to use words effectively; and when someone with personal charisma walks into a room, we can't help but notice and show interest. Power brings prestige and recognition, and as we can see in many public figures, it brings the temptation to live outside ethical boundaries. Simon is a powerful man, so powerful that people "listen to him eagerly." They follow him. However, these same people discern a greater power through Philip's preaching when he comes to them in Samaria.

Philip was among those who had been dispersed throughout the area when Saul began his campaign against Christians (Acts 8:1-3). Those who spread out after Stephen's death and Saul's persecution of them did not scatter into the countryside to escape from threats to their lives but to proclaim the gospel. No wonder the Samaritans took note of Philip: even though persecuted, he preached a joyous message that threatened religious assumptions.

The Samaritans believe and are baptized, but the power that Philip brokers is not his own, nor does he buy or sell it for his own sake. Instead, he serves the power of God through proclamation and baptism. Because those in Jerusalem heard of this work of God, they sent Peter and John to demonstrate it further and to serve the power of God by the laying on of hands. Simon doesn't understand that it is God's power alone. The Samaritans discern the power of God and how it is administered. Simon discerns incorrectly when he thinks that this power can be manipulated.

Peter not only accurately accuses Simon of the wrong motives,  he also makes a way clear for Simon to be healed and forgiven for his motivations and misunderstandings. The power of God opens a way to Simon for restoration.

What does Simon do?

He accepts the grace! Certainly, Peter is a strong example of a servant to the power of God; Simon now humbles himself, submits to correction, and learns about the true nature of the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon wanted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit; now he receives it freely, pointing to God alone.



We read about God's power for living in Eph. 3:20:" [God] by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine." It is what gives us the confidence to spread our wings and fly, to dare to say and do all the gospel things we are given. The God of the universe created us in God's own image, which we bear in our daily lives. We are created to be who God created us to be. We are servants, yes. But we are not all the same servant doing the exact same thing in service to the Holy Spirit. And we are not weak servants, "for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7).

How do we shine brightly without burning others? Our power is to serve, not destroy. Our lives are like parables, pointing to Jesus or to the kingdom of heaven.

Philip continued the call to proclaim the gospel and to baptize; John and Peter went where they were sent and did what they were given to do; and Peter declared the truth about the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in the end, serves us by binding us to Jesus Christ, in whom all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled to God. We serve the God who is for us.

Just imagine: your light, shining brightly, glorifies God and points all those around you to the Holy Spirit.



Can you think of a person or two in your life who has "shined brightly" and encouraged you to do so? How does your understanding of this inspiration change when you realize God gives you a spirit of power and love?

Is it hard to affirm others who shine brightly in a way different from the way that you shine? Why or why not?

What power has God given you to point to the gospel of Christ? Do you demonstrate joy, love, peace, patience, or other fruits of the Holy Spirit?



Holy Spirit, if you accomplish abundantly far more than what we can think to ask for or even imagine, we realize that you change the world. Help us to stand up boldly, confident that you have created us to be powerful servants of your gospel. In Christ's name, we pray. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Acts 7:51—8:la
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
—Acts 7:59
7:51 "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56"Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
The stories of the Gospels and of Acts are written so that we can see the mountains, plains, wilderness, and Samaritans by the side of the road in the text. In this passage, we not only see people murder Stephen; we see the looks on their faces and feel their burning resentment of Stephen. One would think that we would stay away from this passage. But as the death of Jesus is echoed here in Stephen's death, we witness something beautiful, true, and good.
Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and thus enabled to see divine things. While those around him "became enraged and ground their teeth," he saw not the end of his life but the ground of all life: "he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (v. 55). He saw Jesus resurrected, Lord over all, in unity with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This passage is often referred to as the martyrdom of Stephen. The word martyr is one we should use carefully, because it is a serious word. To be a martyr is to be a witness. Stephen is a martyr because he was killed for bearing witness to his faith in Jesus Christ. This has been happening to Christians over the centuries. When we remember the stories of martyrs, we rejoice in their faith and courage. In fact, it is their absolute conviction of the joy of the gospel that fills their hearts with courage to proclaim that gospel regardless of the enemies who are present.
Unfortunately, the word martyr is used casually even by Christians. Some, thinking that Christians no longer dominate United States culture, have used the word martyr to describe themselves, even when there isn't a hint of physical danger. Complaining about the way things are is very different from being killed for proclaiming the gospel.
On the other hand, there are Christians who have done brave things and died for them but who are not Christian martyrs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often called a martyr because after doing what he understood he needed to do as a disciple of Jesus Christ, he was arrested and put in various Nazi prison camps where he was hanged one week before the Allies liberated the camps.
Bonhoeffer was not arrested for being a Christian. He was arrested because he participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. However, Bonhoeffer's courage points us back to Stephen's, and we can start to see how devotion to Jesus Christ reorganizes our priorities. Bonhoeffer understood that he had a unique place in society—he was well-educated, unmarried, and connected to the underground intelligence movement—and thus a unique responsibility. He knew that murder was wrong. He did what he thought he was called to do and left the justification of his act up to God.
"Telling the truth" is one of the best excuses we Christians use to be unkind, since we think of telling the truth as morally right no matter what truth we're telling. But claiming that we are speaking the truth when we are being mean and arrogant turns the gospel of Jesus Christ into a joke. Why should anyone believe that "God is love" when we show disdain for their thoughts or opinions? In Eph. 4, we are exhorted to "speak the truth in love."
This shows us that hypocrisy can go in at least two directions. Stephen shows us both by holding fast to the truth of Christ. First, he does speak the truth, even though he would have gotten along a lot better with people if he had soft-pedaled his message. To be faithful to the truth of Christ means speaking when necessary. Stephen did this in order to refute lies and hypocrisy of the council who claimed to be people of faith but who had turned against God.
Second, Stephen speaks the truth in love, bearing witness to Jesus who had been sent into the world God loves so much not to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:16-17). We know he speaks in love because his last words are selfless words of forgiveness.
Consider how Stephen's witness has been passed to us today. The word tradition means "to hand over." When we teach others about our faith, we hand it over to them and help them to hold it in their own hands. The words and deeds of our faith need to bear witness to the truth in love; otherwise we are handing over a hollow gospel that does not share the good news of our salvation through the love of God.
Stephen allowed himself to be formed into the truth of Christ by his faith tradition and by the Spirit. When we allow ourselves to be formed into truth as Stephen was, we speak the truth in love, no matter the opposition. This means that we, like Stephen, are to be loving and daring in our witness to Christ. We forgive even those who oppose us, and we hand over a tradition of gospel joy.
Boldness requires risk. We take risks when we declare our faith one way or another without considering the cost. Small acts can be bold. We can also be bold in a louder volume, but our boldness will always be unique to who we are as Christ's particular disciples. The Samaritan woman at the well boldly spoke to Jesus, a man and a Jew. Moses boldly argued with God and talked God into a change of mind. We all know people that have been bold when they were heckled on the street or brave as they continued daily life after a cancer diagnosis.
Being bold, as Stephen shows us, is being a Christian no matter what. This doesn't mean we're always perfect Christians. Any situation in which we find ourselves is a situation in which we are called to be Christian no matter what happens. We are bold simply because we speak the truth in love as Stephen did.
You have particular circumstances in your life. How do your situations require Christian boldness?
What does it mean to you to "speak the truth" and to do so "in love"? What particular events would you refer to in order to describe how you were a bold witness to the gospel of Christ, in word or deed?
In what ways do you seek to be formed by the Holy Spirit into the joyful daring that was active in Stephen?
Mighty God, we are bold to approach you for forgiveness, and we are bold to go forth as your servants. Form us into truth and love that we might pass on the gospel of Christ in the way we speak and act. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.