Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Honoring God’s Choice, Following God’s Lead

            One of the most divisive issues the early church faced was over this question: “What do Gentiles have to do to become Christians (read: to be saved)?” Luke places this question at the center of the Book of Acts as a testimony to the strong leadership of the early church and the willingness of Christians to follow the lead of God, even when it may take you places you don’t really want to go! 
            After the conversion of Cornelius, those who objected to Peter eating and staying with a Gentile brought up this issue. Peter explained his vision and his actions! “When they heard this they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’.” (Acts 11:18) Unfortunately, after the mission work of Paul and Barnabas more objections arose. “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) Of course, Paul and Barnabas objected to this to the point that they were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders there.

            As Paul and Barnabas were reporting to the church all the details of their missionary journey, some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) Luke, very modestly, says – “The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After MUCH discussion…” (Acts 15:6-7 Emphasis mine). Having sat through meetings with much discussion, I am painfully aware what that means!

            Then something truly remarkable happened. Peter got up and said: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” Then Paul and Barnabas told about “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” And then James chimed in, “Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this,…” Then he added, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Notice the sources of authority they displayed: the choice of God, the work of God through the Holy Spirit, the words of Scripture, and finally their own judgment. They were willing to follow God’s lead!

            It is remarkable to me that every person in the room that day had believed at some point the Gentiles were unclean and must be circumcised to be saved. But the gospel of Jesus changed their hearts and their minds! CHANGE. That is what is so hard about following God’s lead, because he continually leads us to new ways to spread the gospel and new audiences to share it with. Will we follow?

                                                            - Kenny Payne

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Evidence of God’s Grace

Evidence of God’s Grace
(or How a Great Church Emerges)

             Churches do not grow by accident, but even a strong desire to grow does not always mean growth happens. The story of the birth and growth of the church in Antioch is a great model of how God can use the decisions that disciples make to create a great church family. Noticing the story of Antioch can help Palo Alto live out our story.

            The birth of the Antioch church was not a planned or financed event. Rather it was a result of the persecution that arose at the time of the death of Stephen. Some unnamed disciples ended up in Antioch and decided to share the message of Jesus with the Gentiles living there. “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” God blessed the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles because that was his stated will! (See Acts 1:8) Telling the good news about Jesus leads to new disciples because God promises that his word will not return empty! 

            The Jerusalem church heard about the events in Antioch and decided to send Barnabas to Antioch (to help? or to control?). When Barnabas arrived he “saw what the grace of God had done” and joined their excitement! When a church family sees God’s activity in their lives it generates enthusiasm and greater commitment to follow Jesus.

            Barnabas left Antioch briefly to go to Tarsus to bring Saul back to Antioch as a teacher. The Antioch church soon had five named teachers who were dedicated to teaching believers how to grow as disciples and teaching unbelievers the good news about Jesus. The commitment to teaching and living as disciples produced amazing results as “great numbers of people” were added to the church family and the disciples were given the name “Christians” for the first time in Antioch.

            When prophets visited from Jerusalem and predicted a severe famine, the church family in Antioch decided to take up a collection for the Christians in Jerusalem and sent their gift by Barnabas and Saul. A well taught church will always be responsive to the Holy Spirit and to the needs of people around them (even people in other countries!). The connection between obeying God and loving and serving people is a strong part of good teaching.

            The ultimate complement for a congregation is when the Holy Spirit can call for some of your leadership to be moved to a different mission! So the Antioch church was told to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special work. This was 40% of their named leadership/teaching team. Yet they did not object, because they were obedient and they knew they could train other teachers! In the space of a few years the city of Antioch experienced the birth, growth, maturation and deployment of one of the best church families in the ancient world! Are you praying that Panama City is on the verge of experiencing the same thing?    

- Kenny Payne

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Conversion of Cornelius

             Luke tells a masterful story of the conversion of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his family. Interwoven in the story is the account of God preparing Peter for the mission to share the gospel to the Gentiles. It is a story full of surprises and learning. It is a story that all disciples need to learn to live.

            Cornelius was “devout and God-fearing, he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” God paid attention to Cornelius and decided to engage him. In a vision he saw an angel who told him to send for Peter in the city of Joppa. Cornelius obeyed and was eager to learn what Peter may have to teach him.

            Peter also received a vision from God in which he was shown a sheet full of animals and told to kill and eat. Peter perhaps sensing that this was a test, refused to obey God, saying “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Three times this command and refusal played out and Peter was left wondering what God was trying to teach him.

            When the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying it started to become clear to Peter what was happening. However, the Holy Spirit did not want to take any chances with such an important event, so the Spirit said to Peter, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them for I have sent them.” Peter obeyed and went to Caesarea to meet Cornelius.

            Here are Peter’s first words to Cornelius and his family: “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 have sent for me?” Peter was changing and growing as he spoke! His knew knowledge allowed him to cross the threshold of a Gentile home. (It did not keep him, however, from still being a little offensive in his speech – I am sure the people understood that until very recently Peter considered them unclean!).

            As Peter was preaching the good news of Jesus to the people the Holy Spirit came upon them and shocked everyone in the room. Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized in water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have!” And they baptized Cornelius and his family. Peter stayed with them for several days. While we call this story “the conversion of Cornelius” it is really more about the continuing conversion of Peter. It is not easy to keep stretching and growing as disciples, but if we are going to follow Jesus we must do it until we are “fully mature as our heavenly Father is fully mature!” Keep growing…

- Kenny Payne

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What Jesus Does With His Enemies

             Like Jesus before them, the ministry and teaching of the apostles after the day of Pentecost created a strong backlash from the Jewish religious leaders. They wanted to completely stop the work and teaching of the apostles, but could not figure out how best to accomplish that desire. And so they met and discussed it!

            Gamaliel, a wise and revered teacher of the Law, instructed the Sanhedrin with the following words: “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone!  Let them go! For it their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39 NIV) His speech persuaded the Sanhedrin. However, it did not persuade a young man, one of Gamaliel’s students, named Saul!

            Saul chose the path of youthful passion over seasoned wisdom and began persecuting the disciples of Jesus. Just as Gamaliel predicted he found himself fighting against God! (Jesus called it “kicking against the goads!”) Jesus introduced himself to Saul one day as Saul was traveling to Damascus to arrest disciples and haul them to Jerusalem for punishment. Blinded by a great light and confronted by a voice that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” – Saul asked a life changing question: “Who are you, Lord?” I am sure that he was not prepared for the answer to that question! “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”

            For three days (!) Saul waited, refusing to eat or drink, trapped in a world of darkness with the knowledge that his mistaken believe that Jesus was a false prophet actually made him the false prophet! New truth surfaced new questions. Was Jesus as zealous to destroy his enemies as Saul? No wonder Saul was praying!

            When Ananias told him that Jesus would both heal his blindness and fill him with the Holy Spirit, Saul learned a lot about grace! “Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:18-19 NIV) Saul spent the rest of his life sharing the story of Jesus and his amazing grace that could save even “the chief of sinners!” Our world desperately needs to know that Jesus is offering, not the punishment that we truly deserve, but the renewal that he died to create! Amazing grace indeed…

- Kenny Payne