Monday, August 24, 2015

This week's lesson (August 22-28): Peter and the Gentiles

Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between you and me. For the generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner -- those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." -- Genesis 17:9-14, NIV (emphasis supplied).
God does not change.

If God said circumcision was "an everlasting covenant," for instance, than it was obvious to early Christians that He meant just that.

To be sure, they'd shown a certain amount of flexibility in just who they baptized.
  • Yes, Palestinian Jews had reached out to Greek-speaking Jews.
  • One of those Greek-speaking Jews had reached out to Samaritans.
  • And that same Greek-speaking Jew had even baptized an Ethiopian eunuch.
But in none of these cases had circumcision been an issue -- either the people involved already been circumcised, after all, or they were not capable of it. 
No, circumcision was still thought to be an "everlasting covenant" . . . 
All of which explains why Peter was such a reluctant missionary to the Gentiles. 
  • To be sure, God gave Peter a vision -- three times!
  • He told Peter "not to call anything impure that God has made clean" -- three times.
  • And when messengers from Cornelius came looking for Peter, God told him specifically to go with them "for I have sent them."
But when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, the first words out of his mouth make it clear that he's not entirely happy to be there:
"You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?" -- Acts 10:28f, NIV. 
Indeed, it's only after the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles that Peter resolves to baptize them -- and even then, he's criticized for this by the believers back home in Jerusalem!
In short, change came slow -- painfully slow . . . when it came to circumcision.
What's more, change came only because God made it obvious -- very obvious . . . that change must come.
You see, God Himself doesn't change.
But sometimes, He thinks His people should.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This week's lesson (August 15-21): cross-cultural missions

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." -- John 3:8, NIV
God's love is a net that catches all kinds of fish.

Consider the Nicodemus described in John 3, for instance, with the woman at the well in the following chapter -- two people as different as night and day.
  • One is a man, the other a woman.
  • One is named, the other nameless.
  • One is Jewish, the other Samaritan.
  • One comes to Jesus, the other is approached by him.
  • One is a respected leader of his community; the other skulks out to the well at a time when she can avoid her peers.
  • Oh yes -- and one encounters Jesus by night, while the other meets him at noon.
No, these people are opposites in almost every respect; even their response to Jesus is not the same.
  • Nicodemus is slow -- even timid. It is only when Christ dies that he openly declares his faith.
  • But the woman at the well fences with Jesus a bit -- then plunges in. Her response is immediate and public; the result is the conversion of her whole village.
Two very different fish, in other words -- but one net that's big enough for both.
Yes, two very different people -- but one God who loves them all.

Monday, August 10, 2015

This week's lesson (August 8-14): Jesus, the master of mission

"Then Jesus came to [his disciples] and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.' " -- Matthew 28:18-20, NIV.
Most religions are like sports teams, i.e. your allegiance is local.

If you follow baseball in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, then you're probably a Mariners fan; if you're a fan in New England, then you probably follow the Red Sox.

Likewise, if you're Hopi then you probably follow Hopi rituals, while your Navajo neighbors follow the Navajo way.

And just as Mariner fans don't go door-to-door in Boston, asking the locals to support Félix Hernández, neither do you see the Hopi holding evangelistic series, urging the Navajo to be ready for the return of the Elder Brother.

To be sure, there are similarities -- and even a certain amount of "borrowing" going on (just as baseball teams may swap players) . . .

But by and large, the Hopi and Navajo each follow their own path and leave the other to follow their's; in a sense, you could say they each root for their own team.

And again, this is true of most religions . . . with three exceptions:
  • Buddhism,
  • Islam,
  • and Christianity.
Out of all the hundreds and thousands of religions in this world, in other words, only these three claim to be universal; only these three claim to be something that anyone, anywhere, at any time, and from any culture may follow.
Is this imperialistic -- an excuse for religious genocide? 
Maybe . . . 
But at the same time, it is also anti-imperialistic; it gives us reason to treat everyone from every culture with respect.
If anyone can be a Christian, after all, then that means no culture is intrinsically privileged, no nation is inherently holy, no group is necessarily closer to God than any other group. That means God does not love Americans more than He loves the Chinese; it also means American culture is no more "godly" than that of the Chinese.
No, we all need God.
And we can all follow God.
It doesn't matter where you live, in other words . . . 
You can still be part of the game.

Monday, August 03, 2015

This week's lesson (August 1-7): Esther & Mordecai

Try to imagine Esther as a Student Missionary.

I dare you.

Missionaries are supposed to be deeply spiritual people, after all -- in fact, they are probably the closest thing we have to officially-recognized saints in the Adventist Church.

But Esther?
  • There's no mention of her praying.
  • There's no mention of her reading the Bible.
  • And if she's keeping a kosher home (much less keeping the Sabbath), then she's found a way to do so that nobody notices!
Add to that the nature of her "job" in the Persian court and it's clear: Esther would never make it through the screening-process for a Student Missionary . . .

And it's only with careful editing that you can use her for a children's story!

No, Esther is not a spiritual super-hero; she's not even "a member in good and regular standing."

But if God could use someone as "spiritually-challenged" as Esther -- someone whom better believers would never consider an equal . . .

Yes, if God's grace is enough for Esther, then think what it can do with you.

I dare you.