Pride

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.”]

After Acts 4–after the heady hope of the Jubilee community, after the generosity and selfless sacrifice of Barnabas–we move into chapter 5, and we run face-first into reality. Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, keep some of the proceeds and bring the rest to the apostles, while pretending to bring all of the proceeds from the sale. They are found out, and as a result, they both “fell down and died.”

It’s a troubling episode for many of us–it seems awfully harsh! But Luke doesn’t just explain it away; he doesn’t paper over the sin in the community, nor over things that freak out the early church community (and us!). It’s really important that we see things like this, that we’re reminded that God isn’t just a kindly old man, God is not your buddy or your pal. God calls us his friends, God invites us into his family, God is our Father; but it would be folly to forget that he is still God.

Take electricity for example. It’s a potent thing: it can run your laptop, charge your phone, power the cell towers that allow you to stay connected with people; it runs cars and buses and trams and trains; it brings light and heat to our homes and cities; it allows us to store and cook food, to wash dishes and clothes; it enables us to watch or listen to or play with all kinds of entertainment. But if you’ve ever experienced electric shock, you know it’s not a pleasant experience—it makes sense to me now why my childhood nanny freaked out when I tried cutting through a power cable with a pair of scissors. And if you’ve ever seen the power of a lightning strike up close, you know that it’s not to be trifled with and that if you do, you’re going to get hurt. Did you know that the temperature of the air around a lightning bolt is over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, six times hotter than the surface of the Sun? You don’t mess around with that stuff!

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is when the children are told that the great Aslan, whom they’re about to meet, is actually not a man, but a lion; and so they’re naturally a little nervous about meeting him.

Lucy: “Then he isn’t safe?”

Mr. Beaver: “‘Course he isn’t safe … but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

I love that. But there’s a difference between the power of electricity and the power of God: the power of God is personal, and the God who wields this power is good and you can trust him.

So we should always remember—we need to always remember—that God is not to be treated casually. God is not just someone we can make in our own image—no, we are made in his: God, the Holy One, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, so glorious that when Moses asked to see his glory, in Exodus, he says, “You cannot, for no one can see me and live.” He wasn’t saying, “I could show you but then I’d have to kill you,” but rather, “There is such a gulf between you and me that you wouldn’t be able to handle the fullness of my glory.” Think about that! This is the God that Ananias and Sapphira were treating so lightly; they had forgotten what it was all about, who it was all about.

Which brings us to what I think is the root of the problem here in Acts 5 and what I think is one of the most potent poisons known to the people of God–to the Jubilee community: pride, that which C.S. Lewis called “the great sin.” In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Just as Kryptonite is lethal to Superman, pride is lethal to the Jubilee community.

  • Pride eats up the very possibility of contentment: Ananias and Sapphira weren’t happy to just give a certain amount of money.
  • Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person: they weren’t just giving because they wanted to bless the community; they were giving because they wanted to be recognized for giving—and they wanted to get the recognition without having to make the sacrifice. There’s a reason Luke juxtaposes their story with that of Barnabas; they wanted to be like Barnabas—”Barnabas” was sort of a nickname given to this man Joseph by the apostles, probably because of what he was like: an encourager, a friend, a supporter. Ananias and Sapphira wanted that.
  • Pride eats up the very possibility of common sense: their pride led them to come up with this plan; their pride led them to stick to it, even when they had the opportunity to come clean. Their pride led them to think that they could fool God.

The point of this story isn’t that God wants you to keep your finances in order—though he does; the point of this story isn’t that you shouldn’t give money to the church—you should; the point of this story is that God is holy and God hates hypocrisy—that child of pride. John Ortberg writes,

According to Jesus, hypocrisy is not just the failure to live up to what we aspire to. Everybody does that. The core of hypocrisy is deception—mean-spirited and selfish, although sometimes even unconscious, deception. (Who is This Man?, 122)

We can think of any number of scenarios involving hypocrisy: the politician who rails against corruption and who herself is caught in a bribery scandal; or the priest who speaks of a God who loves children while himself abusing them; or the pastor who preaches about the sacredness of marriage and is discovered having an affair.

I often read these stories, particularly about the ones that happen within the church, and at first, I react in the same way as when I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, with righteous indignation, with incredulity, with a pitying shaking of the head.

And then the Spirit of God sort of taps me on the shoulder and reminds me to take the plank out of my own eye, reminds me that I have a tremendous capacity for self-deception, convicts me for the sin of pride, for looking down on others when only God has the right to judge. And it is when I humble myself—for humility is the opposite of, indeed the antidote for, pride—that God gives me compassion when I look at others and grace when I look at myself.

And that is when we truly embody this Jubilee community. We live out this Jubilee community:

  • when we work toward right and restored relationships with the God who has forgiven our sins and with those around us, even if—perhaps especially if—they have done nothing to deserve it;
  • when we love others with the love of the Christ who died on the cross because of love;
  • when we forgive those who have wronged us as God forgives us;
  • when we give generously and sacrificially, when we meet the needs of our church body and the needs of our neighbors—both friend and enemy;
  • when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what this good news means for all people; and
  • when we humble ourselves, asking God to forgive us for our sins and to make us better, and allowing the Spirit of God to perform surgery—however painful—on our souls to remove the spiritual cancer of pride..

My parents actually gave me the middle name, “Barnabas.” And I want to be like him: I want to be uncomfortably, sacrificially generous; I want to be part of this Jubilee community; I want to be so in love with God and such a part of the body of Christ that I make decisions that might not make sense to the rest of the world.

But I acknowledge that often I make decisions with ulterior motives—in fact, nothing I do is ever completely pure. Did I serve on this occasion because I love serving or because I love the recognition that comes with serving? Probably both. If no one knew that I had served, would I still do it? Probably, but maybe a little more grudgingly. I acknowledge that my so-called ‘sacrifices’ are nowhere near as costly or as heartfelt as the sacrifice of my Lord deserves. I know my life will not always match up to what it’s supposed to be, and sometimes it won’t even be facing the right direction.

But in those moments, when I am brought down low, the same God whose might is imposing and even frightening, lifts me up with his strength. The same God whose holiness shows up every defect and flaw and blemish in me burns away those very defects and flaws and blemishes with that same holiness. The same God whose presence is overwhelming fills me with this same presence and reminds me that it is the Spirit of Christ living in me—and not my own strength—that will accomplish all things. The same God who convicts me of my sin also reminds me that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and will purify us from all unrighteousness.

Pride takes all sorts of different forms, and I’m pretty sure that we all struggle with this sin in some way:

  • Maybe it’s being judgmental, concerning yourself more with where others are going wrong than with where you need correction.
  • Maybe it’s lacking patience, as if everyone should work to your schedule and your timetable.
  • Maybe it’s not thinking about others enough, riding roughshod over other people’s feelings.
  • Maybe it’s self-centeredness, not even being aware of how you’re hurting people.
  • Maybe it’s refusing to ask for help, because to ask for help would be to show weakness and you don’t want to appear weak.
  • Maybe it’s selfishness, not wanting to share with others the material blessings you’ve been given because you think they belong to you, or not helping those in need because you’ve forgotten that they belong to God.

Ask God to show you what it is. Ask God to forgive you. Ask God to heal you and make you new.

Maybe it’s fear or uncertainty or anxiety or your past—something that is causing you to hold on or hold back or hold out, something that is keeping you from giving your time or your money or your relationships or your life to God. You’re not sure if you can trust him; you’re not sure if you can trust other people; you’re just not sure who to trust.

I want to encourage you to trust in Jesus Christ: he isn’t safe, but he is good.

Jubilee

[Part 1 of a blog adaptation of the October 28 message at The District Church: “Jubilee.” Read part 2 here.]

In Leviticus 25, God decrees that, for the people of Israel, every fiftieth year is to be a year of Jubilee: liberty was to be proclaimed to all people; debts would be forgiven; land would be sold back to its original owners; and slaves would be set free. The purpose of this was to show the surrounding nations–and, perhaps more importantly, to remind the people of Israel–that God was in control and God would provide.

The year of Jubilee was meant to remind the people of Israel that whatever land they owned or whatever crops or fruit they reaped or however successful they became, and on the flipside, whatever debts they had accrued, however many mistakes they had made or opportunities they had squandered, however low they had sunk, ultimately everything belonged to God and ultimately everyone belonged to God.

When we look at the early church in Acts 4, where everything was held in common, “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions” (v.32) because they recognized that everything belonged to God; and “there was not a needy person among them” (v.34) because they recognized that everyone belonged to God. They showed uncomfortable, sacrificial generosity on a daily basis.

Whatever fears they might have had about not being cared for, whatever reticence they might have had about giving of themselves and their belongings—these were assuaged by the trust within the community: they trusted that they’d be looked after, they trusted in each other and in the discernment of their leaders, and most importantly, they trusted in God and in his provision. They were the people of God, the Jubilee community.

The precise details of the situation in Acts may be a little different from ours, but we face similar fears and uncertainties to the early church, similar questions about how we’ll survive or how God will provide, about what it means to be involved in the community of the body of Christ, about how much we can trust each other with our lives or our time or our money or our emotional and relational energy.

We love the idea of this Jubilee community: of no one being in need, of doing life together, of being open to one another; and intellectually, we can agree that everything belongs to God and that everyone belongs to God. But sometimes, when we realize how much work it’ll actually take or how much it’ll actually cost us, we flinch: we hold on or hold back or hold out because we think, it’s smart to protect yourself, it’s safer to insulate yourself.

When Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his public ministry, he says, in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He’s quoting here from Isaiah 61—and when he mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” he’s talking about Jubilee. Jesus was saying that his mission was to proclaim the year of Jubilee, and it wouldn’t simply be a time of material restoration, when land and property are returned and financial debts are forgiven, but these things will be part of the larger reality of all things being made right: good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.”

And in carrying out this mission, Jesus refused to protect himself; he refused to insulate himself—from the poor, from the broken, from the hurting, from the lost, from the world of sinners separated from God—and for these people, for us, he gave his very life—quite literally—as the ultimate act of sacrificial generosity.

In Acts 4, we see this community of Jesus-followers taking up the mantle of their master, walking in his footsteps: healing the sick, casting out demons, sharing their possessions with one another, ensuring that there were no needy persons among them. This was Jubilee community.

In fact, this generosity—not just of spirit but of possessions and of life—came to be one of the most defining characteristics of the early church. A few hundred years later, around AD 360, the Roman Emperor was Julian the Apostate, and he was not a fan of Christians or their faith; yet in a letter, he wrote,

it is disgraceful that … the impious Galileans support their own poor as well as ours, while everyone can see that our people are in need of aid from us.

The early church cared not just for their own community but for the people they lived among, people who didn’t believe what they believed, people who may have disagreed pretty strongly with what they believed. It didn’t matter—it doesn’t matter: everyone is made in the image of God. So they put others’ needs far above their own, treated the welfare of others as more valuable than any of their possessions and any of their time, and held others’ lives as of greater importance than their own.

This is something that has been a great encouragement to me in these early years of The District Church’s existence: we care. We care for each other, we seek to live out true community with one another, we share our lives with each other and encourage one another, we challenge each other to grow closer to God, and we care also for those who aren’t part of our church community. I love how we’ve gotten involved in our neighborhood: partnering with Samaritan Inns and Christ House and Park View Kids Zone and various schools, to just love on people, to meet them where they are, to provide food and supplies and resources. I love how we’ve been so generous: last year we gave tens of thousands of dollars toward famine relief in Somalia and to build a well in Liberia. When people need help, we help; when people need jobs, we pass along résumés and job postings; when people need a place to stay, we step up and offer a couch or a spare room. These things may sound pretty ordinary, but to me, they’re signs that we’re on the right track.

Now we’re not perfect by any means—far from it. We are sinful, selfish, messed-up, broken human beings, after all. The early church wasn’t perfect either; but that didn’t stop God from doing great things in and through it.

Us not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through us. You not being perfect doesn’t stop God from doing great things in and through you.

Let us thank God for that!

It’s been an emotional week

Whew.

Last night I got back from Minnesota where I got to see my friends Chris and Ashley get married at the coldest wedding I’ve ever attended (let alone, played and sung at). It was a beautiful setting, a wonderful (and definitely memorable!) ceremony, and a fun reception, too. Also had a little Fuller reunion with my friend Julia, who was also at the wedding.

Upon getting back to DC, I found out that Donna, a friend and neighbor who’d been a part of The District Church community pretty much from the beginning, had passed away this last week from the cancer that she’d been diagnosed with in August, when it was already late-stage. Donna had a tremendous story of redemption and she wasn’t afraid to share it–in fact, she was the first person from our church community to be baptized; and at our Sunday gatherings, she was a one-woman amen corner. She’ll be dearly, dearly missed.

This morning, I preached from Acts 4-5 about Jubilee and about the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, and I shared about a friend who’d told me this week that she was moving on from our community. This was a pretty difficult thing to hear, but as I’d been praying about it this week, God reminded me that … well, neither I nor our community is perfect. Still working through it, though.

Then, in between the two services, I got a text from my friends Isaac and Jess, who’d also been part of The District Church for a while before moving back to Minnesota (and I’d gotten to see them during my brief stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes), that Jess, who was pregnant with their first kid and due tomorrow, had given birth to a beautiful little girl!

And to cap it off, this afternoon, as I was doing some work at home, I found out that another friend’s dad had passed away.

So it’s been an emotional week … heck, it’s been an emotional weekend!

I’d welcome your prayers for me, but even more so for those I’ve mentioned–those that are celebrating as well as those who are mourning.

Thanks, friends.

The Comfort of Being Called

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.” You can read Part 1 here.]

The more I live, the more I experience, the more I reflect on life and Scripture, the more I spend time with God and participate in his mission, the more I realize that at the very core of our being, at the very depths of our soul, we were made to find our satisfaction and our end—our home and our comfort—in God, the One who made us, the One who loves us, the One who saved us, and the One who calls us to something greater—something, in fact, that we were made for: to be in right relationship with God and working with God to help make the world right again. There is so much more to life than what the world tells us.

Every day, I have to remind myself that God calls me his child, that through Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins and for the sin of the world, and through his resurrection and vindication by God, the Father was able to adopt me into his family and call me his own, that I am loved by God—by God. This is such a different kind of comfort than the world offers; this is the comfort of being called. This comfort is true: it doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life, it doesn’t pretend that you’re something you’re not or that life is something other than it is; but it also doesn’t pretend that God is not who God is—mighty and majestic, high and holy, intimate and immanent, constant and close.

Here. Now. In this place. With us.

I have to remind myself of that every day, because every day I am faced with voices that would say otherwise, that would call me in other directions, that would pull me from my mission, that say you have to be successful in order to be loved; you have to make yourself attractive in order to be loved; you have to get this job or this education or live in this place or drive this kind of car or own this kind of phone in order to be loved, in order to be accepted. And every day, God says, “No. I love you as you are. I have always loved you and I will always love you. There is nothing you can do to make me love you any less or any more—that is how much I love you, how much I accept you, and how much I am pleased with you, my child.”

Some of you need to hear this: to hear that the grace and love of God are greater than anything you’re facing, anything you’ve done, anything that’s been done to you, any addiction you’re struggling with, any doubts you’re wrestling with. You need to hear that God promises power to his people—the power of his Holy Spirit, a power that enables us to know God’s love—and, as Paul writes to the church in Rome, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). You need to know this love that will empower you—and not just empower you but so overwhelm you with its truth that you will be unable to do anything else but be a witness—and testify. And in this, you will know both a calling out of the comfort of the world—that is a false comfort, a veneer of comfort, indeed no comfort at all in reality—and you will know the true comfort of being called by God.

Bob Dylan, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, said:

Everybody has a calling, don’t they? Some have a high calling, some have a low calling. Everybody is called but few are chosen. There’s a lot of distraction for people, so you might not never find the real thing. A lot of people don’t.

It’s really easy to get distracted from the call of God.

  • The call of the Father that says, “You are my beloved child,” gets drowned out by the voices that tell you that you’re not good enough or good-looking enough, you’re not successful enough, you’re just not enough—and so you keep trying to change yourself to please the wrong audience.
  • The call of Jesus that cries out, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest,” gets drowned out by the distractions of a world that rewards busyness and activity and earning your way in the world—and so you work harder and try harder and wear yourself out trying to change the world in your own strength.
  • The call of Jesus—the mission of God—that says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” gets lost in the advertisements that sell comfort and convenience as the highest goal, and the voices that trumpet safety and security as the measure for success.

And so you stay on your couch, you watch another episode of TV, you don’t get to know your neighbors, you don’t take the time to learn that language so you can go to that country—or even a next-door neighborhood, you distance yourself from risk, you make your life about pleasure, about yourself, about what you feel like.

I confess, I do these things too.

And let me tell you, when we do this, when we let ourselves get distracted from God’s call, from God’s mission, we miss out on a life that could be so much fuller than it is, a life so much more stable (and not stable in a boring way, but stable in its foundations), a life in which we are truly alive.

Bob Dylan’s right: there is a lot of distraction for people—and we inhabit a world full of people that are so distracted that they haven’t found their calling: not even their calling in the sense of “God is calling your name; God desires a relationship with you; God is seeking you; Jesus loves you,” let alone their calling in the sense of “This is what I was made for; this is what I was made to do, who I was made to be.”

And maybe that’s you, too. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out what your calling is, what God wants you to do with your life, who God wants you to be; and it isn’t becoming any clearer. God’s taking a long time to answer and you’re getting worried that you may have missed his reply!

In one sense, I can’t help you: I can’t tell you for certain what that thing is that God would have you do. God has made each of us unique and uniquely gifted to bring our contribution to the body of Christ and to be that part, to play that role, in the work of the kingdom of God. It took me until I was almost twenty-eight years old and only after I’d actually started in full-time pastoral ministry here at The District Church that I knew for sure that this was it—and it came after a lot of twists and turns and trying to make the best decision I could, trying to listen as best I could, trying to discern—with others as well as on my own—where and how God might be leading me. But when I did realize my more specific calling, when I did figure out what God had crafted me for, I also realized that God had been molding me all along—on the journey, in the process.

And I realized that everyone has a calling in another sense: everyone has the calling to play a role in accomplishing this mission, to be—as Jesus said—“my witnesses”: the calling of following Jesus, of being like Jesus, of telling others about Jesus, of inviting others along on the ride and to the relationship, of living in such a way that the world is put to rights. And that—you can do that wherever you are; you don’t have to wait around for that. And you know, I think it’s in following that broad calling to be Christ’s witnesses that we may well discover the more specific calling that God has prepared for us.

I want to point out a couple additional things from Acts 1 to bear in mind as we consider this mission. First, verses 10-11:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus just told you what to do: ‘Go back to Jerusalem, wait for my Spirit, go be my witnesses.’ Why are you still standing around?” John Stott commented,

There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. … Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers.

Sometimes we can do that too; sometimes we look up to heaven as if God hasn’t said anything at all and we’re just waiting for him to say something before we do anything. Tell me what to do, God!

And God says, “I have. I have given you a mission: be my witnesses. Testify, in your words and in your deeds and by your life, the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of redemption, the good news of restoration, the good news of grace and mercy and love and justice.”

The last thing I want to point out is from the end of the chapter, when the apostles are choosing a replacement for Judas. Out of the hundred and twenty who are there, they narrow it down to a shortlist of two: Joseph and Matthias. Matthias gets chosen. There’s no suggestion that he had a better heart or that Joseph was less worthy, or that God favored or disfavored one or the other. One was simply chosen to be an apostle and the other was not. And you know, we don’t hear anything more about either of these two in Scripture—we don’t know what happens to them. And the point is, as N.T. Wright puts it:

Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.

So it comes down to this: if we are Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—we have been given a mission to be Jesus’ witnesses, to testify to what we know, to what we believe, to the evidence we’ve found, and to be credible in telling and living out those truths. It is a mission that may seem impossible at times, and it will call us out of our comfort zones, out of what we know or what we think we know, out of the false comfort of the world and its distractions. But it is also a mission that we are not expected to accomplish on our own. Indeed, on our own, it is an impossible mission; but Jesus promises us power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God, the life-saving, world-changing, soul-awakening power. And as we enter into that mission, as we walk in the power of that Spirit, we will discover the true comfort of being called: called by name, called sons and daughters of God, called friends of God, called to join God in the adventure, in the story, that he is involved in.

And so your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:

Receive the power of the Spirit of God; be Jesus’ witnesses wherever he calls you and whatever he calls you to, shaking off the chains of what this world calls comfort; get out of your comfort zone and discover the true comfort of being called by God.

A Promise, a Mission, and a Call

[Part 1 of the blog adaptation of yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Promise.”]

Remember the 60s TV show, Mission: Impossible, that Tom Cruise successfully shifted to the big screen? Remember that famous line: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it …”?

In Acts 1, we are sort of given a mission by Jesus. In verse 8, he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

To unpack this mission and hopefully to help us understand it better, I want to break it down into three parts: “Promised: Power,” “Wanted: Witnesses,” and “Called: Out of Comfort.”

PROMISED: POWER

Here in DC, power is a common concept. Decision-making power. Budget-setting power. The power to craft policies that impact people. We might define power as “the possession of control or command over others,” or the strength to make decisions over (and sometimes against) others. And because it affects others–often drastically, we can shy away from it a little.

But in the Bible, power isn’t portrayed as a necessarily bad thing—and more importantly, power isn’t understood solely as a political concept. For Luke, our author, power is the work of the Holy Spirit. And so Mary is, it says in Luke 1, “overshadowed by the power of the Most High,” and she conceives. Jesus has power as he is anointed by the Spirit of God; he stills the storm with power; he exorcises demons with power; he heals the sick with power; he raises the dead with power; and here in Acts, he tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Jesus has power and he isn’t afraid to use it. Why? Because he understands where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for.

In the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul talks a lot about power–only he seems to use it in a different way to how we’d use it. He talks about power to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts; power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ; power to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Power isn’t simply the ability to bring about whatever you desire, to exercise or effect control over others. True power has a source; true power has a proper exercise; and true power has a purpose—where it comes from, how it is to be used, and what it is to be used for: it is the power of God by his Holy Spirit, working through his people, to see more of heaven come on earth—as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is the power that is promised to the disciples in verse 8. This is the power that is promised to us. This is the power that will change your life and that will make this mission possible.

WANTED: WITNESSES

But Jesus doesn’t just stop with the promise of power. Jesus’ last words are, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses …” (v.8)

Last week, for the first time, I was selected for jury duty—picked to be one of the twelve jurors (more on this to come!). In a jury trial, the two sides call their witnesses and they examine and cross-examine these folks, asking questions about what they saw and what they remember happening and were they really sure that’s what happened or did somebody else tell them that’s what happened. It’s on the basis of these witnesses’ testimony, their credibility, and the evidence shown, that the jury is called on to make their decision.

Here in Acts, the Greek word that’s used for ‘witnesses’ carries that same connotation of testifying in legal matters: testifying to what you know, to what you’ve experienced, to the evidence you’ve found, and being credible and trustworthy.

So it is with us: not only are we promised the power of the Spirit, we are also charged to be witnesses in that same legal sense—to testify to the truth, to what we know and to what we have experienced and to the evidence that we have found, and to live our lives in such a way that we are credible and trustworthy as we also speak the truth.

And the truth that we get to proclaim is no less than the gospel: the good news that Jesus Christ is alive, that our sins are forgiven, that a restored relationship with God is possible, and that this God—the Creator of the cosmos—is offering us a mission, should we choose to accept it, that will change the very world we live in.

CALLED: OUT OF COMFORT

But as with any mission in any adventure or story, however impossible it might seem, there is a call—and it is a call out of comfort.

In less than three months’ time, the first installment of the movie adaptation of The Hobbit will come out. In The Hobbit, for those of you who don’t know, the main character is a hobbit—or a Halfling—by the name of Bilbo Baggins. Actually, let’s turn to the first paragraph of the book:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

But very soon—in that very same chapter, in fact—Bilbo finds himself agreeing to go on a mission: a very noble mission with great companions and a lofty purpose, a mission in which he will encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful folks—dwarves, elves, wizards—but a mission that seems somewhat impossible and a mission that will take him out of his comfort zone, out of the comfort of his hobbit-hole and take him into places and situations that, if he had known about them beforehand, might seriously have led him to reconsider.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when this man approached them and said, “Come, follow me,” but there was something about him that drew them in, something about the way he carried himself, something about the way he talked and the things he said. And now, risen from the dead (as if that weren’t crazy enough!),  he comes to them and gives them this mission:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (v.8)

Jerusalem sounds good: capital city, center of power, happening place. That’s where change will happen—that makes sense; good call. Judea might be the opposite way to where we want to go—that’s away from the decision-makers, away from the influencers of the world. And then, Samaria?!

Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. At all. There were ethnic, cultural, and religious differences between the two, not to mention hundreds of years of animosity and rivalry. Jews looked down on Samaritans as dogs, not even human, not worth interacting with. In fact, if you look at the map above, if they were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem or the other way, Jews would go around Samaria rather than through it; that’s how much they didn’t get along—which, by the way, makes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and his parable of the Good Samaritan all the more powerful, and which makes his instructions to the disciples—his mission—all the more uncomfortable.

And then, “to the ends of the earth.” Even if this is hyperbole and he’s referring to the limits of the known world at the time, it’s a long way. If we look at how far the Roman Empire stretched in Jesus’ day: Egypt, North Africa, modern day Spain, France and parts of Great Britain, Italy, Rome, Greece, Turkey. Remember, the people Jesus chose as his disciples weren’t sophisticated world travelers; they weren’t high rollers or hobnobbers with the movers and shakers of society. At least four of them were fishermen and one was a local tax collector. Moreover, many of Jesus’ followers were women—in those days, not considered the most reliable or credible of witnesses nor the most valued members of society—and yet Jesus calls them too, as it says in Acts 1:14: the eleven apostles were “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” The women were part of this, too. All of Jesus’ followers were given this mission and called out of their comfort zones—out of the comfort of the jobs they knew, the families they knew, the lives they knew, their hometowns, out of the comfort of everything they knew—to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

For much of my life, I have struggled and wrestled with the idea of home. I was born an American citizen in Hong Kong, went to an English school in Hong Kong, learning English as my first language, speaking Cantonese at home, going to a Southern Baptist church. At fifteen, I decided I wanted to leave, to explore the wide and wonderful world, and so I headed off—newly baptized—to the UK, where I spent the next eight years, an American (who’d never lived in America) in London. Then, sensing a desire to do something in church—and it wasn’t too much more defined than that at the time—I moved to California to go to seminary; and then after that, discovering a love for politics, I moved to DC to pursue advocacy.

Over the last three decades, with my parents in Hong Kong, my brothers now in Australia and California, and my best friends in London, there has never been anywhere that I didn’t feel at least a little bit at home; but more strongly than that, there has never been anywhere that I have felt completely at home. My journey, like Bilbo Baggins’ and like the disciples’, began a little inadvertently—I didn’t know all of what I was getting into, I couldn’t have foreseen where the road would lead, the relationships it would lead me to and through, the trials and struggles I would encounter, the failures I would endure, the people I would hurt.

Jesus called me out of my comfort zone: God broke my heart for the poor and those in need, and called me to the city—a place of transience—to DC, in fact—the epitome of transience—which, for someone who desires roots, is not the most comfortable thing.

Maybe you can relate: you’ve been faithful, you’ve followed God where he led, and you can say, without a doubt, that God pulled you out of your comfort zone—and it doesn’t just have to be geographic, though it may be:

  • you’re from a small town and now you find yourself teaching in an inner city school or working in an inner city hospital;
  • you’ve been working hard and for many years on a degree in one area and now you somehow find yourself doing something completely different;
  • you’re finding yourself stretched at work or at home or at school—or all of the above—in ways that you don’t know if you can handle;
  • you’re in a marriage or a relationship or you’re a parent, and you’re discovering that it’s far more work than you thought it’d be;
  • maybe you just realize how much God still has to do in your life—with your heart, with your words, with your thoughts, with your actions, with your soul.

It is not comfortable.

But the good news is that we aren’t called out of comfort—out of our comfort zones—just for the sake of it. Jesus doesn’t simply ask us to give things up that we love or move to a place we don’t know or invest in a city we’re not sure about or make friends with people we wouldn’t normally hang out with or to allow him to do his sanctifying surgery on our lives—just for the sake of it. Jesus calls us out of comfort for a couple reasons:

  1. So that we might be in the best environment in which to grow. When everything is going your way, when everything is sweet and easy, when everything is comfortable, there’s no reason to change anything, is there? There’s no reason to do anything different in our lives. And when everything is comfortable, we too easily forget the grace and goodness and generosity of God.
  2. So that he can redefine it for us, and to do so in relation to God. When Jesus comes, he redefines a whole lot of things and helps us understand them as they were meant to be understood. He redefines power as something that comes from God to be used for the purposes of God; he redefines love as a central characteristic of who God is and says, “This is love” and then gives of himself even to death so that others might live; he redefines what it means to be human by living the life that we were made to live. And so also he redefines comfort—true comfort—as something that can only be found in companionship with God and as we choose to carry out God’s mission. I want to call this, “The comfort of being called.”

[To be continued … tomorrow.]