Acts 5: One

Dear church,

This chapter in Act leaves us with both questions and affirmations. We read these words and find ourselves shaking our heads in wonder and confusion. And we also read these words and find ourselves nodding our heads with approval. Some things here don’t make a lot of sense, and some things here leave us feeling bold.

Ananias and Sapphira wound up dead. It was like Peter was the judge and the Holy Spirit was the executioner. They fell down and breathed their last.

This story should remind us of a similar story from the history of God’s people – about 1,500 years earlier – when the Israelites were just entering into the Promised Land. The people conquered the city of Jericho. You can read that story in Joshua 6. But then Israel promptly lost a battle against the people of Ai. You can read that story in Joshua 7.

The crux of the problem was a man named Achan, who kept some of the loot from Jericho for himself. He buried it in his tent. God had said the people were to keep none of it. But Achan kept back some of the proceeds from that victory for himself. He undermined the holiness of God’s people. The people suffered for it. And it cost Achan his life.

Now here again in Acts 5, a new covenant was being established by God among his people. It was a new community, a new order. And God was demonstrating how things would go. God’s people would be truthful with one another. They would not seek position among each other. They would not compete with one another to be the most generous as a way to gain status. And they would not lie to the Holy Spirit.

One of the powerful pieces of doctrine we learn here is the Holy Spirit is divine – is part of the Godhead. It is a grave sin to lie to God. And God was establishing a new covenant people – and his discipline was fierce at first. Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit, and they were deceiving the church. They were undermining the new thing, the new community, the new family, that God was building.

And perhaps more than this: We shouldn’t be surprised that sin leads to death. After all, we know, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Perhaps we should be surprised whenever our sins don’t result in immediate death. Perhaps it is a sign of God’s grace that he lets us keep trudging along day after day, despite our sins.

And so Ananias and Sapphira were dead. The people of the church and the community took note of this. The disciples were suddenly men whom the people needed to be careful around. They weren’t exactly going to win popularity awards – and the Jesus movement they were leading carried some risks. But “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”

And again we are reminded the church is built through the power of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Even a seeming public relations gaffe can’t stop the kingdom.

And the story immediately entered yet another miraculous story. Instead of two people dropping dead because of sin, the twelve disciples were miraculously freed from prison. Instead of the church and community stunned into the fear of God, the religious leaders were shocked into the fear of the people. The disciples were popular again.

But the high priest and his council wanted to disband the church. They were fearful. And the disciples said, “We must obey God rather than men.”

There’s a great balancing act in Scripture. On the one hand, the apostle Paul gave us Romans 13 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” On the other, Luke tells us this story – “We must obey God rather than men.” There’s always a great tendency within the church to strike a bargain with the governing authorities or the powers that be. But Peter and the apostles provide a check on that tendency. We must find the balance here – and these COVID-19 times are opportunities learn that balance!

Part of me wonders whether the disciples saw the collapse and death of Ananias and Sapphira as a sure motivator from God. “Obey God rather than men.” Perhaps as the apostles stood there in front of the high priest and the council, they thought of those two corpses. Perhaps they thought of the danger of making deals with the world, of seeking one’s own profit at the expense of God’s people. Perhaps they thought of Jesus’ words, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Perhaps they knew the danger of trying to serve two masters – God and something else.

Regardless, the authority of God emerges clearly here. We are to have one – and only one – allegiance. And that is to God and his church. Everything else is secondary. We listen to to no other voices. We give into no other temptations. We obey nothing contrary to our heavenly Father.

“And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Are we among those who obey him.

In the passage just before the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke records the story of the church. The people of the church, Luke wrote, were “of one heart and soul.” I don’t think we can underline that with ink that is bold enough.

These were one people who had allegiance only to God and each other. Only one thing was on their minds – the kingdom of heaven. Ananias and Sapphira would have undermined that. The high priest and his council would have disbanded it. The one-ness of the church was under threat.

What threats does the one-ness of the church face today? Does it come from attitudes within the church? Or dangers from outside it? What keeps us from being of one heart and one soul?

It is a question worth asking.

Chris

Acts 4: Boldness

Dear church,

This is a chapter about bold speaking. It is about witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. From our reading in Mark, we knew something like this was going to happen. The disciples surely were not surprised. Jesus had told them:

“And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).

And here was the first moment in which Christians were given over to a trial – and the Holy Spirit spoke. The council leaders were astonished at the “boldness” of Peter and John. They were uneducated, common men. The council leaders weren’t expecting such things from them.

But these men had been with Jesus. And so, they weren’t really uneducated men. They weren’t common men. The council leaders may have been beginning to learn that, too.

And when Peter and John finally got out of there, they went back to the church (a people, not a building) and prayed with the others for even more boldness. Immediately following a display of boldness, they prayed for boldness. And God answered that prayer. And just as Jesus had said, God answered that prayer through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In our world, there is no shortage of boldness. Social media is full of people speaking boldly about things – about politics and statues and elections and public health and the economy. I’ve found in myself an urge to speak boldly about such things, as well. It is rather easy, after reading and thinking and living in this nation at this time, to think boldly about things.

A friend of mine recounted how he walked into a store in Carbondale without a mask over his mouth. Before he had gone very far into the building, an employee called out – “Put your mask on!” My friend didn’t have his mask. He turned on his heel and went back out of the store. The cries behind him didn’t stop – “It’s the law!”

Boldness about what is right and what is wrong. We all can find ourselves in that place. We know something is right or wrong, and we call it out. We can even be zealous about it. And our nation right now is nothing if it is not zealous – internally zealous. And on this Fourth of July, we are finding ourselves tearing each other apart in our zealousness.

Now, the disciples were bold. They weren’t bold in trying to tear people apart. They were bold in living out their place in the kingdom of God.

Peter pulled out that old Psalm Jesus had quoted and laid it straight on the council leaders: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11; Mark 12:10; Psalm 118:22). And Peter without apology said there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.

This is bold.

In a nation of bold people, are we as Christians this bold? Am I? Are you? Perhaps more to the point, are we trusting in Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will speak through us at the appropriate time? Are we praying for this kind of holy boldness?

Chris

Acts 3: Piety

Dear church,

When I read this chapter, I think, “Man, I wish I could see stuff like that happen today!” I’ve yet to see a crippled man get up and walk at the doors of the church building.

I know many other Christians think these same thoughts. Some Christians believe this kind of thing should be going on every day in every church across the world. They say Christians should be performing healing miracles everywhere they go.

Of course, that’s not happening. Many faith-filled Christians have never witnessed, much less been involved in, miracles like this one. This remains a mystery to me. I don’t know why God doesn’t do this more. We hear stories about miracles like this still happening in other parts of the world. Some here say those other believers must be mistaken, and they doubt them. Others here say we just lack the faith required for God to perform those miracles here. I don’t know what the answer is.

I do know that one tendency is to ramp up my spiritual life in hopes that God will begin to do the miraculous through me. If only I prayed more, if only I spoke more often with God or the Holy Spirit, if only I were more devoted to the study of Scripture or to meditating on it, if only I were thinking about the right things during the day – then perhaps God would work miracles through me.

Of course, Peter and John shot down that idea. The people were looking at them in wonder. But Peter said, “why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” Certainly, we know it wasn’t by Peter and John’s power that enacted this healing. But Peter clarifies it wasn’t by their “piety” either.

Piety is equated with devotion, and it is lived out in things like prayer and meditation and time in Scripture. To live a pious life means that we do those things with great earnestness. We are devoted to God and his kingdom. But it isn’t by piety that miracles come. We can’t just beef up our acts of piety in order to experience them.

Fundamentally, miracles are done by the hand of God, as he pleases. The balance of Scripture makes this clear. God is in charge. He heals whom he wants to heal. But Peter and John do give us insight into what we ought to be doing. And it is not necessarily miracles.

We are to trust and obey. Peter said, “And his (Jesus’) name – by faith in his name – has made this man strong …” Faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ should be the foundational piece in every Christian’s life. We believe in the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of Israel. We believe in the power of Jesus Christ to heal. Jesus is, after all, the “Author of life.”

And we live out our faith in obedience. We don’t have true faith if we also don’t live in obedience to Christ. It’s as simple as that. Peter pulled out an old prophecy from Moses – from Deuteronomy 18:15 and following – to demonstrate this. “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.”

We have work to do in this area – in obedience to Jesus Christ. The tendency is to let some things slide. We are called to do certain things in the words of Christ – in the Scriptures – and we simply don’t do them. We’ll do them later, we say. In these instances, I think Peter would call into question our “faith in his name.”

Some questions for your day: What area of obedience (or lack of it) to Christ comes to mind for you today? What are you going to do about it?

Chris

Acts 2: Filled

Dear church,

This chapter is sometimes said to record the birthday of the church. When the followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit, the church came into being. They were being led into their ministry to the world – to share the good news and to demonstrate the kingdom of God to anyone who would listen.

As people flocked to them – people of “every nation under heaven” – the church was beginning the process of reversing the curse at the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. Instead of the confusing of language and the scattering of people across the earth, the language barrier was broken and people from different lands and languages and races were brought together as one.

It’s a beautiful picture. True unity – which our broken world so seems to crave right now – can only happen in the church of Jesus Christ.

And the Holy Spirit came like the wind (John 3:8). It filled the house where the disciples were sitting. And then it appeared like fire. And the disciples themselves were filled with the Holy Spirit.

They were mocked, of course. The world always mocks. Was this a 9 a.m. wine party? Were these people “filled” with alcohol? But this was not so. The apostle Paul maybe had this in mind when he wrote, “And do not get drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

The power of wine rests in its ability to soften the hard edge of our reason. It makes it so we feel free to loosen our grip on the things that weigh on our minds and cause us to worry. The power of wine is that those things, temporarily, no longer control us. Being full of wine is to be free – or at least to feel free – of our burdens.

I suppose that’s why it sometimes is said alcohol sales rise during times of national stress – like a recession. We drink our way to freedom, for a moment anyway.

To be filled with the Holy Spirit is a wonderful, mysterious thing. The skeptics at Pentecost couldn’t quite figure it out. These believers must have been out of their minds. Something must have been driving this strange behavior. “The wind blows where it wishes,” Jesus had said.

While wine deadens our intellect and dampens our knowledge, the Holy Spirit does the opposite. While wine eventually strips us of our purpose, the Holy Spirit thrusts us into God’s purposes. We can be filled with either one – wine or the Spirit.

The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit as they lived in obedience to the words of Christ. He said “wait,” and they waited. And they were filled as they lived in prayer. And they were filled because it was the will of God.

We can be filled with the Holy Spirit. And we can quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Perhaps we should start with obedience and prayer. And perhaps we should be sensitive to the slightest movements of the Spirit.

Sometimes, I think I think too much. Thinking is good. I believe God ordained thinking. But my thinking too much is sometimes an excuse for not doing what I know the Holy Spirit is calling me to do. “I need to think about it,” I might say. Or, worse, “I need to pray about it.” I can use prayer to put a damper on the breath of the Spirit in my life.

Prayer is good. But when the Spirit moves, we must go. So I’m resolving to be more sensitive to what I sense the Spirit doing in my life. I won’t stop praying. I will pray more. And as I hear from the Spirit, I will resolve to do.

A question for your day: How has the Holy Spirit been moving in your life this week?

Chris

Acts 1: Waiting

Dear church,

Our religion is one of waiting. It was like that from the very beginning. Abraham was asked to wait patiently for a son – even into his old age. The Israelites were forced to wait for rescue from the Egyptians. The nation waited again for 40 years in the wilderness. And then began the long wait for the Messiah.

And then the Messiah came! And the kingdom of heaven, we know, was “at hand” (Mark 1:15). And then the ascension happened. Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem. A glorious gift was coming to them in the form of the Holy Spirit. And yet still, the angels stood there in white robes and told the disciples that the story was not yet finished. Jesus would come back.

Again, God’s people would have to wait.

The disciples, of course, wanted to know when Jesus would restore the kingdom of God. We know enough about the disciples after reading Mark’s Gospel together as a church. This was not a group of men that was adept at waiting.

I’m afraid we are right there with them. Waiting is not our strong suit.

One of the things that happens with people who are called to wait is they sometimes forget about the thing for which they are waiting. If we are not careful, the waiting can lull us into sleep. Remember, Jesus told the disciples to stay awake:

“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (Mark 13:34-37).

The disciples were waiting for the restoration of the kingdom of God. But they would have to wait for it.

And yet, they weren’t told only to wait. They also were told to witness. This was their task as they waited. They were to be witnesses to Jesus both near and far – to the end of the earth. The disciples early on seemed to take this job very seriously. They were so serious about it that they went looking for a twelfth “witness.” Matthias was selected for the job.

Again, we aren’t a people who are good at waiting. In our waiting, we tend to fill our time with silliness. Our waiting is often filled with smartphone-gazing. We scroll the internet and check our email and text our friends. I suppose that’s OK when we’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room or in a line to get into the grocery store.

But our calling to wait for the return of the Messiah is also a calling to witness to his resurrection. That is, we don’t wait silently. Our days of waiting are not idle days. They are days of doing, of sharing, of speaking, of convincing.

A question for your day: What does being a “witness” look like in your day today?

Chris

Mark 16: Response

Dear church,

The short ending of Mark bothers a lot of people. It is just so – unsatisfactory. The women encountered a miraculous sight. They were given explicit instructions. And then they ran away, fearful, and said nothing to anyone.

There was no appearance of Jesus Christ in the flesh, and there was no real indication the women were going to muster the courage to tell people the tomb was empty.

And so the longer ending was added.

My own belief is Mark finished his gospel with the shorter ending – at verse 8. It fits with everything we’ve seen from the followers of Jesus to that point. They were a people who grappled repeatedly with fear, and Jesus was consistently telling them they needed to have no fear. It was faith that counted.

And the disciples were a people who repeatedly failed to follow through. We’ve already noted how the Twelve disappeared from view in Chapter 14. They were rocky soil – they had no root, and when the sun rose, they were scorched. When trials and tribulations came, they disappeared. They ran away.

When the women ran away trembling, it was like the last hold-outs of faith had finally fallen. The women in Mark, generally speaking, were the strong ones. But there they went at the end, fleeing from the tomb, “for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And again, fear has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. After Jesus calmed the storm on that boat with the Twelve, he turned to them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). The battle in Mark’s Gospel is between faith and fear. It is severely disappointing to see the women followers of Jesus running away in fear.

With all of that said, we know verse 8 isn’t the last word on the Jesus movement. The fact we are here today, worshipping the risen Christ, is evidence enough those women didn’t stay stuck in their fear. It is evidence enough to know that they did tell someone!

I think Mark gave us this abrupt ending because he wants to test what kind of soil we are. This is the “soil-test” ending. Farmers and gardeners will occasionally do soil tests to determine the composition of their soil – to know whether the soil is good and improving, or whether there is still more work that needs to be done to make it good soil.

Mark was giving us a soil-test. This ending was designed to trigger a response. Are we going to be silent and fearful like those women? Or are we going to share the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection with the people around us? Or maybe more to Mark’s point, Do we believe Jesus Christ is the risen Son of God or not? Now is the time to decide.

The gospel of Jesus Christ requires a response. Our own salvation is dependent upon our response to this good news. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

We must “receive” Christ in order to experience eternal life – to enter into the family of God. It is not enough to read the story of the gospel and say, “Well, that’s nice,” and then move on with our lives.

Please read the first eight verses of Mark 16 again. What is your response today?

Chris

Mark 15: Family

Dear church,

Mark 15 gives us much to think about. It is a sober chapter.

Consider Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20). We have more examples of the some of those soil types. The soil along the path shows up in the form of the chief priests, bringing accusations against Jesus and stirring the crowds to call for his crucifixion.

The soil among the thorns is present as Pilate recognizes something in Jesus – and that Jesus’ accusers were up to no good – and yet reluctantly declined on changing course in the face of the crowds. Pilate was distracted by the cares of this world.

And, of course, the good soil is present. The women were there all the way to the end. And so was a surprising man – Joseph of Arimathea.

The only soil-type missing, I suppose, was the rocky soil. But the disciples were long gone by this point. Will they show up later? Mark wants us to think about that one!

You’ll notice the pace of the narrative slows down to one where the hours tick by methodically. It’s much different than the earlier parts of Mark’s Gospel, where things moved quickly – “immediately.”

Jesus was savagely mocked as he hung on the cross. He was mocked by people passing by. He was mocked by the chief priests. He was mocked even by the criminals who hung alongside him. It was a vocal moment.

And Jesus’ response to this wasn’t a reply to the crowds, but it was vocal. It was a prayer. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But we know the Father loves the Son. This prayer was answered. Jesus died on the cross. He was not abandoned to this sinful generation. He was reunited with his Father. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

The temple curtain was torn in two. The barrier was removed between the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelt and the rest of the temple. Access to God was granted. This happened just after Jesus’ own garments – the same ones that were made blazing white on the mountain during the transfiguration? – were divided up among the Roman soldiers. Now, nothing separates God and humanity.

The people had been wondering whether the prophet Elijah would come and rescue Jesus from the cross. They wondered whether Jesus would get some help in coming down from the cross. Moments earlier, after all, someone had helped the battered Jesus carry that very cross – to get up on it. Elijah did not come. The Suffering Servant remained in his weakness.

Simon of Cyrene caught my attention as I read this chapter. Mark notes Simon had two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Mark’s readers must have known these men. I assume they knew them because they were Christians. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, made note of a certain Rufus. He asked the church, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord …” (Romans 16:13).

Church tradition has connected Paul’s Rufus to the Rufus of Mark’s Gospel. And why not? The church quickly became an interconnected family after Jesus’ resurrection. Its members were linked through their common faith in Jesus, and their connection spanned thousands of miles and multiple continents. These were brothers and sisters in the faith. This was the family of God.

I suppose Rufus could have been there with his father on that day in Jerusalem, watching his father be conscripted into service by the Romans – to carry a man’s cross up the hill to Golgotha. It certainly would have been something a person never would have forgotten. And perhaps this “chosen” one investigated the backstory of the man who hung on the cross that day and later became a believer. Maybe he even found his way to Rome.

This is speculation, of course. And we need to be careful with speculation. But it is clear from the text that Mark’s original audience likely knew of Alexander and Rufus.

We had church on Sunday. The usual suspects came – our brothers and sisters in Christ. You know them all. They are family. There were some who weren’t there, and we missed them. And, we trust they missed us!

I suppose the mention of Alexander and Rufus – and Paul’s friendship with that conspicuous Rufus in Rome – made me think about the church family. It made me think about the fact that Jesus went to the cross to build his church. He hung there to create a community of the born again – people who are full of life and the Holy Spirit and who have the fullness of hope in their hearts.

We may not know Simon of Cyrene or Alexander and Rufus like Mark’s early readers must have. But we know each other. And we know other brothers and sisters around the country and around the world. This is the family of God.

We can rejoice in that today.

A question for your day: What can you do for your church family today?

Chris

Mark 14: Kingdom

Dear church,

Jesus could have prophesied to those members of the high council. They covered his face and beat him. They were spitting on him. The assumption is they were asking Jesus to tell them which one spit on him and which one struck him.

Jesus could have ended all dispute about his identity as the Son of God by simply speaking names as they struck him and as they spit on him. After the second or third correct prophecy, I think the violence and mockery would have stopped.

But Jesus did not prophesy in that ugly moment. It appears that he remained silent. Jesus had a mission to accomplish, and that mission necessarily involved being betrayed into the hands of violent men and dying on a Roman cross. And so Jesus was silent.

Jesus had been preaching the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). The kingdom of God was the priority, not the safety of Jesus.

One thing that makes this passage so fascinating is that at the same moment people were demanding Jesus prophesy to them, one of Jesus’ starkest prophesies was being fulfilled. It was not a prophecy to the high priest or to the Roman governor. It was a prophecy to a fisherman follower of Jesus.

In the courtyard outside the high priest’s house was Peter. He was sitting with the guards, warming himself by the fire. Mark’s Gospel said Peter had “followed” Jesus “at a distance” as the rabbi was led away by the mob. We understand the mixed nature of this following. It is indeed good to follow Jesus, but to do so at a distance means that it is quite easy to stop following if things get difficult.

Jesus had predicted Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice. That’s a very specific prediction. This wasn’t a vague prediction that our modern, so-called prophets might make. No, Jesus predicted three specific actions Peter would take, and he predicted a very specific timeframe in which those actions would occur.

And as Jesus’ face was covered and as he was being spit on and beaten and demanded to prophesy, one of his prophecies was coming true.

“You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” – “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

The rooster crowed.

“This man is one of them.” – Peter denied it.

“Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” – “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

The rooster crowed for a second time. Peter remembered, and he broke down and wept.

This is the last we will see of Peter in Mark’s Gospel. The final image we have of this man, whose original name was Simon but whom Jesus gave the name “Rock,” shows him broken down in tears of failure.

As I read this text, I was reminded about the ways of God – and the importance of the kingdom. Remember again, it was the message and mission of Jesus Christ. The good of the kingdom was why Jesus was covered up, accepting the spit, accepting the blows.

We sometimes ask things of Jesus that he does not do for us. We sometimes demand things of God that he declines to fulfill. It is not at all that God cannot do some things we ask. It is simply that he will not do them. It might be a healing. It might be the opening of a heart. It might be the resolution of some difficulty in life.

And sometimes, God doesn’t answer our prayers. It is interesting to think about the council’s demands – “Prophesy!” – as prayers. They were mocking Jesus. They had no faith – so we suppose. These surely don’t count as prayers. But that’s not the first doubting request Jesus had gotten (Mark 9:24). How much faith is enough anyway?

And sometimes, God doesn’t answer our prayers. Sometimes Jesus is silent.

Perhaps he doesn’t say “yes” to every request because a “yes” is not in the best interest of the kingdom. The miracles, after all, are aimed at building kingdom of God. A death to sickness does not necessarily harm the kingdom of God. In fact, it may spur faith in others. A heart that doesn’t open doesn’t mean the kingdom has stalled – perhaps only that there are others for whom we should pray. The lack of a resolution to some difficulty in our lives doesn’t mean God is incapable of helping or that he likes to see us suffer. It may only mean he is building patience or persistence into our lives – or that someone is watching us whose heart may be opened as we are seen suffering well.

The kingdom comes first. We have been taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” This doesn’t necessarily mean worldly health and wealth for us. But it does mean this: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest is come” (Mark 4:26-29).

So what do we do? We sleep and we rise, day and night. And we wonder. And we follow.

Jesus did not prophesy to the high council. But he did prophesy to Peter. It was for the good of the kingdom. At some point after the tears had stopped, Peter must have remembered what Jesus also had said: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). Although Mark doesn’t tell us this, we can assume Peter got up and followed Jesus to Galilee – because the prophecy was for the good of the kingdom. And we still have the kingdom today.

Yes, we follow. We don’t necessarily understand. We fail sometimes. We are too demanding sometimes. We get frustrated with God sometimes. But as disciples, we recognize that while we are part of this wonderful kingdom, the kingdom isn’t all about us.

And the kingdom – God’s kingdom – comes first.

Chris

Mark 13: Watching

Dear church,

Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives and taught four of his disciples privately about the coming last days. From our reading of Zechariah, we know there is significance in the image of the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4).

There also is significance in the trigger for Jesus’ conversation with his disciples – their being wowed by the impressive temple structure. In Chapter 12, Jesus laid the groundwork for the second half of the book of Mark when he told the Parable of the Tenants. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10-11).

The disciples sparked a conversation about stones. But the wonderful “stones” would be thrown down. Not one stone would be left upon another, Jesus said. And yet something marvelous was about to happen. The vineyard owner’s son would be killed. The rejected stone would become the cornerstone. And the vineyard owner was coming!

Jesus’ conversation with his disciples centers around time – the day and the hour when these things would take place. Jesus told them a lot, but he didn’t answer their question fully. They asked when these things would be (13:4). By the end of the conversation, Jesus said, “no one knows” (13:32).

But the disciples were to be watchful. They were to pay attention. They weren’t to fall asleep. Part of the job of a disciple – that’s you and me – are to keep a lookout for the master of the house, for the vineyard owner.

Stanley Hauerwas said it well, I think: “Disciples are not in the game of prediction. Rather, they are called to be ready and prepared. Disciples, like Noah, are to build an ark even if it is not raining. The name given to that ark is church.”

So what are we doing as we wait? The master of the house has gone on a journey, and he’s given each of his servants their work to do.

A question for your day: What work has Jesus given you to do within his church as we await his return?

Chris

Mark 12: Calling

Dear church,

Some people think Jesus was criticizing the poor widow, or at least he was criticizing the world in which she was trying to live. Some people think Jesus was frowning upon her offering. They say she was blindly giving to institutional religion – letting the scribes get the best of her – when she should have been taking care of herself.

I think this is wrong. I think Jesus is commending her for her self-giving sacrifice. The poor widow was giving us a glimpse of what Jesus soon would do. She put in everything she had, all she had to live on. Jesus was about to give all he had.

This story should be paired with the story of the woman in Mark 14 who anointed Jesus for burial. There, a woman also gave an extravagant gift to God and pointed ahead toward Jesus’ death on the cross. And there, too, the woman was directly contrasted with evil. The poor widow was contrasted with the scribes (Mark 12:38-40). The woman with the ointment was contrasted with Judas (Mark 14:10-11).

In the middle of all of this was Jesus’ prediction of the end of the age in Mark 13. So the flow goes like this: Evil men (scribes) – self-giving woman (poor widow) – Jesus’ prophecy – self-giving woman (anointing woman) – evil man (Judas). I find this compelling.

Another interesting feature in Mark is the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had a habit of calling his disciples to himself so he could show them something important. Recently, Jesus had called his disciples to himself to teach them on three occasions. And in all three of those occasions, Jesus taught them about self-giving sacrifice – Mark 8:34; Mark 9:35; Mark 10:42-45. Please read those three passages. See what they have in common?

Jesus was calling his disciples’ attention to what it meant to follow him. Take up your cross. Be the servant of all. Be the slave of all.

And in Mark 12, Jesus called his disciples to himself again – this time directing their attention to the poor widow. This is what it looked like – to give everything. This is what devotion to God entails.

Are you prepared for this? Is this what you signed up for when you became a Christian? I wonder how many of us actually understand this when we enter the waters of baptism.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us this: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” That entire passage – Luke 14:25-33 – is worth reading right now. I think it’s one of the easiest passages in Scripture to understand. Jesus speaks very plainly. But it’s also one of the hardest passages to accept. Have we renounced all we have? Is there a way to reason our way out of that demand?

This is the call of Christ. It is a hard call – to leave everything in order to follow, to give our last two copper coins and not yet see how we’ll go on living. This is tough stuff.

(Please understand, Jesus isn’t necessarily saying we should abandon our families or our jobs or all of our possessions. But he is setting an unquestionably high bar for allegiance. Where is our allegiance? If push came to shove, if the request came, how would I respond?)

If you are reading this, it is likely that you already are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You’ve already made the decision. You are following in your own way. You may just be starting out on the journey, or you may be well down the road. But you are coming after him.

The key is to just keep following, no matter what. It does require trust. The poor widow had to trust God to care for her needs. It also requires perseverance. The temptation will be to let up, to grab something for ourselves along the way.

Keep following.

Some questions for your day: How can you better serve those around you today? Are there some things you need to set aside – to renounce – in order to be a servant of all?

Chris